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Resistance to Bail Reform Powered By Untruthful Scaremongering

by David M. Reutter

A July 10, 2023, report by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) showed that measures of public safety after cash bail reform reflected “decreases or negligible increases in crime or re-arrest rates.” The report revealed that the type of pretrial reform did not matter, the results were the same: Pretrial release did not impact public safety.

Ending or limiting cash bail is a goal of most criminal justice reformers. PPI collected data measuring public safety before and after reform in four states, as well as nine city or county jurisdictions. The aim was to determine which side was right: reformers and researchers who support change, or law enforcement and those in the commercial bail industry who claim pretrial reform puts community safety at risk.

Over the last three decades, the tough-on-crime movement led to a significant rise in pretrial detention. As a result, PPI reported, “[a]bout 83% of people held by jails are legally innocent and awaiting trial, often because they are too poor to make bail.”

The research found that pretrial detention runs counter to public safety concerns because it “actually increases the odds of a person being re-arrested in the future” by subjecting arrestees to housing and employment disruption that drives much criminal behavior. Another benefit of pretrial reform is that it alleviates jail overcrowding. It certainly is a superior alternative to new jail construction.

PPI’s report examined the impact of reforms in Kentucky in 2013, New Jersey in 2017, New Mexico in 2016 and New York in 2020. Kentucky began using a risk assessment tool in 2013, allowing release of low-risk defendants without seeing a judge beginning in 2017. Since 2013, more people were released on their own recognizance. The new criminal activity rate after release remained stagnant: “a one to two percentage point increase in all re-arrest for all charges, but no increase in the rate of new arrests for violent felonies.”

In New Jersey, a risk-informed approach to pretrial release virtually eliminated the use of cash bail. The pretrial population decreased by 50% from 2015 to 2018. Between 2016 and 2018, “homicides fell by 32%, while rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, and thefts all fell by double-digit percentages,” PPI noted. In 2020, the re-arrest rate for a serious violent offense while awaiting trial was less than 1%.

In New Mexico, judges may no longer impose bond that defendants can’t afford, and they may release low-risk defendants without bond. Defendants may also request relief from a bond requirement. Statewide crime rates declined in the year after the reform took effect. The share of those on pretrial release who remained crime free increased almost 10%.

New York eliminated money bail for pretrial detention for many non-violent felony cases, slashing jail populations by 40% from 2019 to 2020. Between 2020 and 2022, jail populations fluctuated but ultimately dropped another 7%. Studies showed that New York’s bail reform improved re-arrest rates, which showed a 6% drop two years after arraignment. Between 2018 and 2020 the state’s violent crime rate rose just 1% while the national rate rose 5%.

In cities and counties in California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington, Louisiana, Texas and Colorado, as well as in Washington, D.C., bail reforms shared similarities: the number of people released increased dramatically and the number of people who were re-arrested while awaiting trial decreased or increased only slightly. These statistics prove that predictions of a crime wave following cash bail reform are dishonest scaremongering. See: Releasing People Pretrial Doesn’t Harm Public Safety, PPI (July 2023).  

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