Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pretrial Justice

I spent the better part of the last two days in Washington D.C. attending the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice.

The symposium, which was convened by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pretrial Justice Institute, explicitly refers back to a similar gathering convened by Robert Kennedy in 1964 that was instigated by Herb Sturz and the Vera Institute of Justice.

Much of the conversation at the symposium was devoted to assessing the current state of bail reform in the US. While there was some acknowledgment of the good things that have happened in the field since '64, the general appraisal seems to be that we have hit a wall in terms of pretrial justice. Of particular concern is the sheer volume of jail admissions (12.8 million per year, compared to only 748,000 prison admissions) and the fact that on any given day, 61 percent of the people in jail in the US are being held there pretrial. The numbers suggest that despite the drop in crime over the past 15 years, there has been no proportionate drop in the jail population.

I'm curious to see what comes out of the symposium. It was certainly impressive to see the hierarchy of the US Department of Justice, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Laurie Robinson, make such a strong statement in support of bail reform and pretrial release. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be a lot of money to throw at the problem and whatever solutions emerge will inevitably have to be local, rather than national, in nature.

Still, I left the conference feeling energized about the topic. In fact, it seems like bail reform is every where I turn these days. Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed arguing that pretrial release can help California tackle its prison problems. And my friends over at the Vera Institute of Justice have embarked on an ambitious effort to create a pretrial agency as part of their effort to strengthen the criminal justice system in New Orleans.