The Boston Globe

A broad push for pretrial justice reforms from the states

August 10, 2017

By Katie Lannan 

Nationwide, 500 new state laws in the past five years have addressed the pretrial side of criminal justice, an area every state has tackled in one way or another, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

During the NCSL annual summit in Boston on Tuesday, officials from other states highlighted their experience with one particular pretrial policy: reforming cash bail systems in hopes of jailing fewer people solely for their inability to pay. They said efforts to reform pretrial detention policies often face challenges on their path into law, but can also ultimately pay off by reducing incarceration and recidivism rates.

Across the country, 11.7 million people are admitted annually to local jails and 631,000 to state and federal prisons, Laurie Garduque of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation said Tuesday during a panel held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. She said three-fifths of people in jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

“This is very much a local problem that requires local solutions, but is national in scope,” Garduque said.

In 2016, 44 states and the District of Columbia passed 118 new pretrial laws, reflecting what an NCSL summary describes as “continued interest in making changes to the front end of the criminal justice system.”

A yearlong review of the Massachusetts criminal justice system yielded numerous policy recommendations, focusing on what happens during incarceration and after release. After the review’s findings were released in February, Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill based on some of its ideas, including giving certain offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences the opportunity to reduce their time in state prison by participating in programming.

Speakers at Tuesday’s panel discussed obstacles they’d faced in pursuing certain criminal justice policies, including pushback to changing bail systems.

California state Senator Robert Hertzberg said law enforcement in his state is suffering “reform fatigue” that makes it hard to give new proposals a fresh look. A series of criminal justice reform efforts have been undertaken there since a 2011 Supreme Court ruling found conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons were unconstitutional and ordered a reduction in the prison population.

Hertzberg filed a bill that would do away with his state’s fixed bail schedule — the median bail amount is $50,000, he said — and instead charge officials with assessing defendants before a trial to determine if they pose a risk of violence or are likely to flee.

The cash bail industry is fighting the bill, which has passed the California Senate, Hertzberg said.

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