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Bail Reform Strategies

During the last decades of the twentieth century, a number of studies examined the factors most predictive of pretrial misconduct. These studies did not find support for the conventional judicial wisdom that the more serious the defendant's criminal charges, the greater the risk of flight or crime posed. Risk of pretrial misconduct was found to vary by charge type, but not by charge seriousness in the way generally assumed. In fact, almost the opposite of the conventional wisdom was found to apply: lower-level drug, property, and nuisance crimes were associated with higher rates of failure to appear in court and of pretrial crime; more seriously charged defendants produced relatively lower rates of failure. These actuarial studies of failure-to-appear and pretrial crime did not find that race or economic background were predictors of defendant performance on release (flight or crime), despite their association with the use of pretrial detention under the cash-bail system.

Bail reform in its first generation attacked the problem of unequal treatment at bail in two principal ways: (a) by encouraging the use of more objective criteria in the release decision process (and discouraging the traditional, unthinking reliance on the charge standard); and (b) by reducing reliance on financial bail as the principal currency of release. One of the initial goals of the pioneering Vera Institute in the early 1960s was to encourage judges not to rely on the charge standard, and to consider instead other factors reflecting on a defendant's ties to the community, family relationships, and connections to work or study. The Vera Institute also pioneered by creating a special bail reform agency (later to be known as "pretrial services agency") to support the collection and presentation to the judge of information more objectively related to the risk of a defendant's failure to appear.

The bail reform aim of making the pretrial release decision more rationally related to the purposes of bail (by improving the criteria considered by the judge) also promoted a second important goal of bail reform: to encourage greater use of ROR and other nonfinancial forms of release. The Vera "community ties" strategy sought to encourage a presumption that defendants should, on the whole, be released on personal recognizance. To address the cases of defendants who achieved immediate ownrecognizance release, bail reformers sought to further reduce reliance on cash bail through implementation of conditional release options, including release conditions requiring programs of supervision or treatment of the defendants, thus adding to the judge's confidence that defendants would appear in court.

A third bail reform strategy, for defendants gaining neither ROR nor conditional release, encouraged use of deposit of 10 percent bail, when financial conditions were to be set. Under the "deposit bail" procedure, defendants would deposit with the court a small percentage of the total amount of bail (10 percent of the total), equivalent to what might otherwise have been the bondsman's fee. When the defendant attended all court proceedings, the deposit would be refunded. Developed in Illinois in 1965, the reasoning behind this reform initiative was that the prospect of recovering bail deposited would provide defendants with a strong incentive to appear in court, in contrast to paying a nonrefundable fee to the bondsman for release. The use of nonfinancial forms of pretrial release and deposit bail grew noticeably through the 1960s and beyond, accompanied by a dramatic growth in pretrial services agencies modeled after the early Vera reform prototype.

Building on an analysis of the effects of bail reform, Goldkamp and his colleagues have experimented with another strategy for addressing the core problems associated with traditional bail practices in Boston, Phoenix, and Miami during the 1980s and 1990s (Goldkamp et al.). Their "pretrial release guidelines" experimental approach was premised on the belief that the problems with bail are linked with the unfettered exercise of judicial discretion. They argued that bail reform has been less successful than desired because it has failed to engage judges centrally in the reform process. Therefore, the guidelines strategy was designed as a self-help judicial approach, in which researchers worked with judges in a collaborative process of study and review of actual practices, followed by formulation of a set of judicial policies to serve as a presumptive decision guide for the judges or commissioners who had bail responsibilities.

The rationale for the pretrial release guidelines approach is that if members of the judiciary play a role in identifying the problem, make use of strong data to test various assumptions about the use of detention and release, and take a leadership role in shaping improved bail policies, judicial pretrial release guidelines will have a greater impact on release and detention practices than has been achieved by the bail reform movements to date. Positive results were reported in studies of judicial pretrial release guidelines (Goldkamp et al.), particularly in Philadelphia where the guidelines served as a blueprint for major system reform as well as a tool for dealing with jail overcrowding.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawBail - The Purposes Of The Bail Or Pretrial Release Decision, The Eighth Amendment Of The Constitution And Defendant Rights