Pretrial Justice Reform Study


Many jurisdictions across the United States are rethinking the “front end” of the criminal justice system — the pretrial period between an arrest and the disposition of a criminal case. Often these reforms focus on the initial decisions that judges and other court stakeholders make about whether to detain individuals in jail while they are awaiting trial, and on the use of money bail as a tool for ensuring that people will show up to court hearings. In most jurisdictions, the majority of people in jail at any point in time are awaiting trial, and many are there because they cannot afford to post bail. Jurisdictions are looking for fairer, more cost-effective approaches to the pretrial phase of the system.

To assist jurisdictions in making better initial decisions, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures) developed the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a tool that uses data on an individual’s history with the justice system and the current offense to predict the likelihood that the person will show up to hearings or be arrested for a new crime if released. The PSA aims to help judges make more informed, less subjective decisions about pretrial detention. It is currently used in nearly 40 jurisdictions across the nation.

MDRC evaluated pretrial reforms that included the PSA in several jurisdictions. The evaluation used quantitative and qualitative methods to understand the use of the tool and its impacts on the system in each location. More detailed information about the statistical methods used in this evaluation is available in a technical working paper.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

In jurisdictions that are using it, a Public Safety Assessment (PSA) report is generated for each individual who comes before the judge or another court official who will decide whether the individual will be released while awaiting trial. The tool, which does not require an interview with the individual facing charges, produces a recommendation about how the case should be handled—for example, it may recommend that individuals be detained, released on their own recognizance, or released to some form of pretrial supervision, which may involve periodic phone or in-person check-ins. The judge considers the PSA risk score and the recommendation, along with other factors, in making a release decision.

The goal of the PSA is to promote better decision making. Ideally, use of the tool would reduce pretrial detention rates for those who are at low risk of failing to appear or committing a new crime. In many jurisdictions such individuals are currently detained in jail because they cannot afford to post bail. The PSA promotes fairness through risk-based decision making rather than having the probability of detention depend on an individual’s ability to pay bail.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

MDRC is conducting an evaluation of pretrial system reforms in several jurisdictions that are using the Public Safety Assessment (PSA). The evaluation approach combines qualitative and quantitative methods, including the comparative interrupted time series design and other advanced techniques.  

Qualitative data are obtained from observations, interviews with key system actors, and review of each jurisdiction’s policies and procedures.  

The quantitative analysis uses data from a variety of administrative data systems maintained by courts, jails, and other justice agencies in each jurisdiction. The evaluation will assess impacts on pretrial decision making, jail detention, appearance rates at court hearings, and arrests. In addition, the analysis will include a special focus on the role of risk-based decision making in the reforms and will assess how the reforms affect racial disparities in the systems.

The results for each jurisdiction will be released in a series of policy briefs in 2018 and 2019.