New York City’s Pretrial Supervised Release Program Reduces Cash Bail and Pretrial Detention, Maintains Court Appearance Rate and Public Safety

Contacts: John Hutchins, MDRC, [email protected], 212-340-8604

Colby Hamilton, NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, [email protected], 646-576-3508

(September 24, 2020) — Nonprofit research organization MDRC released new evaluation results today showing that New York City’s pretrial Supervised Release program reduces cash bail and pretrial detention, maintains rates of court appearances, increases the proportion of criminal cases that are dismissed, and does not increase arrests for new crimes. Although the study was conducted before statewide bail reform took effect in January 2020, the results remain highly relevant as policymakers consider tools to support the goal of reducing reliance on cash bail.

On any given day in the United States, nearly half a million people are detained in jail while awaiting the resolution of their criminal cases. Many of these individuals are held because they cannot afford to pay the bail that was set as a condition of their release. Research has shown that setting bail as a condition of release can lead to unequal treatment and worse outcomes for defendants who do not have the ability to pay, regardless of the risk they pose. These inequities are particularly pronounced for communities of color.

In 2016, New York City launched Supervised Release citywide, offering judges the option of releasing appropriate and eligible defendants under specific supervisory conditions in lieu of setting bail. When setting release conditions, New York state law requires that judges consider defendants’ likelihood of returning to court only; they may not consider public safety risk. Defendants in Supervised Release are required to report to program case managers regularly and are offered reminders of their court dates, case management support services, and voluntary connections to social services as needed. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice engaged three organizations to provide pretrial release supervision: the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, the Center for Court Innovation, and the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.

Key Findings

At the time this study was conducted, Supervised Release was presented to judges as a release option at arraignment for only a small proportion of defendants in the system. The program screened for eligibility only those defendants with eligible charges who were likely to have bail set, and defendants were screened only at their attorneys’ request or with their permission. Thus, the effects described below apply only to the relatively small proportion of citywide defendants considered for the Supervised Release program during the study time frame. MDRC employed a rigorous regression discontinuity design (which compares the outcomes of people who fell just above and just below the risk-score cutoff for eligibility) to evaluate the program’s effects. Here are the key findings:

  • Supervised Release substantially reduced money bail and pretrial detention. When Supervised Release was presented as an option at arraignment hearings, it produced a sharp reduction in the use of money bail. Consequently, there was a similarly large reduction in the proportion of defendants detained in jail after their arraignment hearings.
  • Supervised Release enrollees were no more likely to have bench warrants issued for failing to appear in court — even though their cases took longer to resolve and they spent more time in the community.
  • Supervised Release did not increase arrests for new crimes during the nine-month follow-up period of the study.
  • Supervised Release produced a large reduction in release without conditions — or ROR (release on one’s own recognizance) — meaning that some defendants who would have otherwise been released without conditions had additional conditions imposed. As with all of the Supervised Release program’s effects, this circumstance, referred to as “net widening,” applied only to the small fraction of criminal cases considered for Supervised Release during the study time frame.
  • Defendants enrolled in Supervised Release experienced lower rates of conviction and higher rates of case dismissals. Defendants who are detained awaiting trial will often plead guilty to their charges without extensive negotiation because they receive quicker release if they do. Because Supervised Release reduced pretrial detention, it also reduced the incentive for defendants to plead guilty.

“This study provides strong evidence that New York City’s Supervised Release program was successful at achieving its overarching goals of reducing the use of money bail and pretrial detention, while maintaining court appearance rates and preserving public safety,” said Virginia Knox, President of MDRC. “We think that lessons from this evaluation will prove useful to policymakers nationwide who are embarking on bail reform efforts.”

“Supervised Release has played an important role in this administration’s commitment to building a smaller, safer, and fairer justice system for all New Yorkers,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “Together with our partners, we work to identify strategies to increase safety and reduce incarceration. Today’s findings further demonstrate how a lighter hand by the criminal justice system can improve the lives of all New Yorkers. We are grateful to MDRC for conducting this evaluation showing the positive impact of our nationally-recognized Supervised Release program: it reduces reliance on cash bail and detention and ensures that people can be safely supervised in the community, accessing support services from home, all while keeping crime at historic lows.”

"My office is proud to invest $100 million recovered in our investigations against major banks in pretrial services that reduce incarceration and help defendants stay on top of their court appearances,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. “This report provides compelling evidence that robust, well-funded supervised release programs empower courts to use alternatives to bail without sacrificing court attendance rates or public safety. I thank Mayor de Blasio and Director Glazer for their ongoing work to refine and build upon the success of New York City’s nationally recognized supervised release model."

Looking Forward

Once New York State’s bail reform legislation took effect in January 2020, the vast majority of defendants were no longer eligible for bail (except those arrested for most violent felony offenses), and instead had to be released without monetary conditions. These changes generally limited judges’ options to ROR or Supervised Release. In preparation for bail reform, all defendants became eligible for Supervised Release at arraignment, with no exclusions based on charge or risk. These changes have resulted in a significant expansion of the New York City Supervised Release program, which began serving both a larger number of defendants and defendants with different characteristics and types of cases than in the past (until the pandemic temporarily halted new enrollees in March). Additional changes to portions of the original bail reform legislation went into effect in July 2020.

For more information, read Pursuing Pretrial Justice Through an Alternative to Bail: Findings from an Evaluation of New York City’s Supervised Release Program, by Melanie Skemer, Cindy Redcross, and Howard Bloom.

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MDRC’s evaluation of New York City’s Supervised Release program was sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, and the New York County District Attorney’s Office. The Vera Institute of Justice contributed to the research on the implementation of Supervised Release, working under contract to MDRC.

MDRC is committed to finding solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing the nation — from reducing poverty and bolstering economic self-sufficiency to improving public education and college graduation rates. MDRC designs promising new interventions, evaluates existing programs using the highest research standards, and provides technical assistance to build better programs and deliver effective interventions on a large scale.