The (Real) Cost of Pretrial Justice

What is the (Real) Cost of Pretrial Justice? Here’s the answer: 

More Days in Jail = Higher Risk of Crime

(Originally published in the Public Welfare Foundation’s Newsletter)

Jails are very expensive to build and maintain, but they are often seen as worth the investment since they keep criminals off the street. However, many communities are surprised to find that when they look at who is actually in their jail, the population is predominately low-level, non-violent defendants who simply could not post their bond. In the short term, the community incurs the cost of incarcerating these individuals unnecessarily, but the long-term costs may be more significant. New research from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has shown that incarceration itself is correlated with an increased likelihood that low risk defendants will commit future crimes. In (Lowenkamp, C.T., VanNostrand, M, and Holsinger, A. (2013). The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention. New York: Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In terms of the costs of new crime and victimization, as well as the cost of incarceration itself, communities benefit from either not incarcerating these individuals in the first place, or releasing them as quickly as possible from jail. 

An Effective and Efficient Solution

Fortunately, the science of pretrial justice offers an answer that protects public safety and minimizes costs. By assessing the risk defendants pose to public safety, and the likelihood that they will return to court, judges are able to make informed decisions as to who needs to be in jail, and who can safely stay in the community. A continuum of community supervision options can also allow communities to best respond to the risk that a defendant poses—and at a fraction of the cost of a jail bed.
Time is of the essence, however, and pretrial policy must also address system efficiency. As shown in National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies. (2014) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Pretrial System: A “front door” to health and safety. Retrieved on May 20, 2014 from Holder, E. (2011). Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the the Arnold Foundation research, unnecessary nights in jail have a real public safety cost, so systems must carefully consider how law enforcement makes arrest and booking decisions, and how courts, jails, and pretrial services agencies screen and hold or release defendants.

In addition, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates a unique opportunity for the pretrial system to connect defendants to health services in the community. Often, jails become de facto providers of physical and behavioral health services, at a very high cost, and upon release defendants frequently relapse due to lack of care. To break the vicious cycle, several communities have begun enrolling defendants in Medicaid, allowing them to access physical and behavioral health services in the community, receive services at a lower cost than through the jail, and ideally avoid future arrest and conviction.