A performance audit from the Washington State Auditor’s Office says the state could save $12 million a year by employing alternatives to cash bail for the thousands awaiting trial in this state at any given time.
And saving money isn’t even the most important reason for adopting ideas such as text reminders of court appearances. Some other ways for keeping track of the accused are actually more effective than the cash bail system. And they are definitely more fair, as bail can be a financial barrier to equitable treatment of the accused.
The Washington Constitution, and court rules, presume most people will be released from jail before their trial. Judges can impose bail as a financial incentive to make sure they return to court. But this system unfairly penalizes low-income defendants. Not only do many end up staying in jail because they can’t afford to pay their bail like richer defendants accused of the same nonviolent crimes, but they may also lose their jobs while they’re sitting in jail awaiting trial.
Nationally, people waiting for trial make up 65 percent of the average jail population. Some Washington jurisdictions hold even more defendants despite the Washington Constitution’s call for release. For example, King and Pierce counties average jail populations with 78 percent and 76 percent pretrial defendants respectively.
Many of these inmates are at low risk of repeat offenses and are simply in jail because they cannot afford to post bail. Our criminal justice system must focus on public safety, but jailing people just because they are poor does not resemble justice.
A Pretrial Reform Task Force, which was formed last year by Washington judges to look deeply at this issue, released its report last month, and its conclusions were similar to the Auditor’s Office.
Both reports talk about the efficiency of alternative ways of making sure defendants show up for their court dates and noted that court-date reminders by text or email, or periodic check-ins with defendants, seem to be more effective at getting people to court than cash bail.
Spokane and Yakima counties report their new text-reminder systems that prompt defendants before their court dates have improved appearance rates. A large-scale reminder system in New York, instituted more than five years ago, has improved appearance rates by 26 percent for low-level offenses.
The judges’ task force also would like to see more court systems use a computer model to determine the risk that any individual defendant won’t show up for jail or will commit a violent offense while on pretrial release. These models could help judges decide between bail and other reminder methods.
Yakima County has been using a pretrial assessment tool to assess these risks and found it could release 20 percent more defendants before trial without impacting public safety or having people fail to return to court. This effort almost eliminated the racial divide in that county between who is released before trial and who isn’t.
Other sensible recommendations of the judges’ task force include offering transit tickets to give defendants free transportation to court, further research on bail discrimination, and more pretrial services such as referrals for drug treatment, mental-health counseling, vocational services and housing assistance. The National Institute of Corrections says these services improve-court date compliance, but even if they just make a difference in future crime prevention, they seem worthwhile.
Washington counties and the state should continue to look at ways to improve pretrial services that are more efficient and more fair than cash bail for nonviolent offenders.