Q&A: Pretrial in the United States

I recently sat down with Ty McCartney, regional business development manager at Tribridge. Tribridge’s software, Pretrial360, provides jails with the risk assessment tools they need to make informed decisions about offenders awaiting trial.

While bail is a financial decision currently, there are many socioeconomic details associated with being arrested, going to jail, and eventually being sentenced.

LA: Ty, thanks for your time! Though there are several risk factors, “unemployment” is one often sited with re-offense. Is this a serious issue? And, if so, how does good pretrial software help address these risks?

TM: Both unemployment and underemployment are huge risk factors when it comes to reoffending. Because of this, it’s important to provide jails with management solutions, which include the ability to refer people to job placement services and additional resources within the case management system — and track outcomes.

A good pretrial software does just that: it makes referrals for offenders and tracks their progress, which is currently a missing piece for countless agencies. Knowing when someone gets a job and how many hours they’re working is important because these statistics are directly correlated with likelihood to reoffend.

LA: Lack of information about employment status seems to have been a problem for some time. What makes this issue so important now?

TM: Over the last five to ten years, legislative bodies have been decriminalizing or lessening punishments for certain offenses. A lot of drug offenses in particular have been reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Which is great! But even though fewer people are going to prison, there’s now an overcrowding problem in a lot of local jails.

As a result, when jails are at full capacity, offenders are being turned away at the door, which can potentially be a threat to public safety. Today’s technology empowers agencies to perform risk assessments on arrested individuals pretrial — before they’ve been convicted of a crime — to determine whether or not they pose a serious risk.

LA: Isn’t bail a common way to keep offenders out of jail before trial?

TM: Yes, but across the country, about 63% of people sitting in jails simply can’t afford bail, even though they may not be a threat to the public. It’s turned into a purely monetary issue, and that’s a waste of resources. The only people incarcerated pretrial should be those who pose a public threat. This makes sense from a social justice point of view — there’s no need to lock up the poor just because they’re poor — but also from a fiscally conservative point of view. After all, housing people in jails is expensive, and it’s much less expensive to manage people released conditionally pretrial if you have the right pretrial software.

LA: This seems like a pretty complex problem. Aside from a robust pretrial management solution, what else can be done?

TM: Perhaps sentencing guidelines can be reduced for low-level crimes, as they have been for many drug offenses. A lot of people should also be given access to mental health or behavioral services rather than being incarcerated.

At the end of the day, local jails are dealing with more and more overcrowding, and pretrial services are already a part of the solution — but pretrial programs need the right resources, including an intelligent management solution.

LA: As someone who has been monitoring this issue for a long time, what are local and state governments and individual agencies around the country doing to address some of these problems?

TM: That’s a great question with a lot of good answers. But just as an example, California recently released a plan to overhaul their pretrial services as a response to the issue of overcrowding in jails. If it becomes law, California counties would conduct pretrial assessments after arrests to determine if those individuals should be detained in jail or released conditionally. With the right monitoring, this could save California a lot of money without negatively impacting public safety.

LA: That’s great! But if these issues have plagued the criminal justice system for so long, why weren’t steps taken earlier to resolve them?

TM: Individual agencies certainly have, but I think the answer has to do with separate branches of government. Both legislative and executive branches at the state level have looked at budgets and many are heading in the direction of increased pretrial services coupled with more sophisticated risk management.

For judges, on the other hand, it’s mostly been business as usual. They’re ultimately responsible for ensuring public safety, so they’re generally cautious about pretrial services. It’s take a while to educate judges about risk assessments that adhere to evidence-based practices, but more and more are coming around, especially now that software is in place to hold agencies and offenders accountable.

Fighting lobbies of bail bondsman has also been important. The more successes we see from other agencies, the more likely for good pretrial services to emerge nationally.

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