National Symposium on Pretrial Justice is call to action for reform

By Alexandra Buller

American Bar Association News Service

WASHINGTON--Pretrial justice reform can save budget-strapped states money, and create a safer, more effective and fairer justice system, criminal justice experts said last Tuesday.

Last year alone, taxpayers spent $9 billion on the 500,000 people held in jail before trial, even though two-thirds of the individuals being detained posed no significant threat to public safety and were likely to return to court for trial.

"We need to fix the pretrial justice system," said Timothy J. Murray, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, during the two-day National Symposium on Pretrial Justice. "We must move to a system based on danger to the public, not dollars."

"Maybe in this instance, the budget problems can be our ally and pretrial justice reform can get the attention it needs," said American Bar Association President-elect Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III. "The goal of this conference is to bring all of the players together to work to improve the administration of justice."

Robinson said that since 1980, the prison population and the costs of housing inmates have exploded, from 24,000 people for a cost of $333 million each year, to 210,000 people for $6 billion each year, illustrating the severe financial burden prisons put on states and taxpayers.

Accordingly, the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section has outlined five recommendations to lift part of the financial burden of incarceration, while preserving public safety and decreasing recidivism rates. These recommendations are based on programs already implemented in some states.

"This project to help save states money recommends pretrial release reform, decriminalization of non-violent misdemeanors, re-entry programs, parole and probation, and community corrections programs," said Robinson.

Also, according to Robinson, the recent Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata--that prison overcrowding is the primary cause of violations in California of prisoners' constitutional rights to adequate medical and mental health care--puts a new spotlight on the need for reform.

"This may present us with the best opportunity to rethink programs and to reconsider costly policies with less costly, more effective reform," he said.

The two-day conference, which began on May 31, brought together criminal justice experts, prosecutors, victims' rights representatives, police chiefs and non-profit organizations to examine the nation's progress toward a fair, safe and accountable system of pretrial justice, just as the first bail and pretrial release reform program convened by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy did nearly 50 years ago.

"The 1964 National Conference on Bail and Criminal Justice was to shine a light on the frailties of the system and we're taking a cue from that conference," said Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. "We are gathering the most influential people in criminal justice to examine pretrial justice issues."

Published: Mon, Jun 6, 2011