On the ground floor of Washington’s busiest courthouse, it is hard to hear the judge over chains and shackles clanking to the floor. But the message resounds: On a typical afternoon the court will release about 90 percent of the people who have been arrested and held overnight in the nation’s capital.
They are released without leaving behind any money — on a promise to return to court and meet conditions such as checking in with a pretrial officer or reporting for drug testing.
Nationally, about 47 percent of felony defendants with bonds remain jailed before their cases are heard because they cannot make bail. At the D.C. jail on 19th Street SE, no one is locked up on a criminal charge because of an inability to pay.
“We’ve proven it can work without money, but the whole country continues as if in a trance to do what we know does not work,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison. The new way of thinking he promotes tracks the federal system, which bars judges from setting financial barriers to keep someone locked up.
Not only can pre-trial release work without money, it also saves governments money.
Reform advocates say converting to a risk-based system can be less expensive because jails house fewer people. Nationally, the average cost to hold someone in jail before trial is $75 a day, compared with about $7 a day to supervise a person in the community, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.
When it comes to answering the knee-jerk claim that jailing defendants before trial makes residents safer, the data speak for themselves.
In the past five years, about 90 percent of defendants released were not arrested again before their cases were resolved, according to data collected by the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency. Of the roughly 10 percent who did get in trouble again, the vast majority are not rearrested for violent crimes.
It’s pre-trial detention, not release, that increases defendants’ propensity to reoffend, or their rate of recidivism. Which makes sense. Pre-trial release allows defendants to continue working and remain part of their communities. By contrast, imprisonment isolates people, disrupts their lives, and sometimes very directly causes—rather than prevents—recidivism.
Let’s hope Atlanta joins D.C. and other cities and states that are leading on bail reform.