(From Press Release) – An innovative pilot program through the San Francisco Public Defender’s office has saved nearly a million dollars of taxpayer money and thousands of jail beds during its first five months of operation, according to a study released Thursday by the California Policy Lab at University of California Berkeley.
The Pretrial Release Unit (PRU), staffed by two public defenders and a single investigator, broke new ground in October by allowing people who cannot afford private counsel to access legal representation shortly after being booked into jail. Ordinarily, these 80-90 percent of arrestees must wait two to five days until a lawyer is appointed by the court. During those critical days, prosecutors decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Bail amounts are also set.
In the study, The Impact of Early Representation: An Analysis of the Public Defender’s Pretrial Release Unit, researcher Alena Yarmosky found people represented by the PRU spend less time in jail and are twice as likely to have their cases dismissed at arraignment. Those with parole holds who receive PRU advocacy spend 9.5 fewer days in county jail, the study found.
“By comparing recipients of Pretrial Release Unit services to similarly situated arrestees, we found that the PRU doubled the likelihood of release at arraignment, and that the PRU-provided parole advocacy substantially reduced the time that arrestees were incarcerated pretrial,” said Evan White, executive director of the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley.
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office launched its “Pre-Trial Release Unit” (PRU) on October 2, 2017. The PRU, which is staffed by two full-time attorneys and one full-time investigator, provides legal advice and advocacy to indigent arrestees during the critical period between booking and arraignment.
PRU interventions include direct representation (through one-on-one interviews), early case investigation, attorney notification, parole advocacy, contacts to family and friends, in-person arraignment recruitment, in-jail referrals, and bail advocacy. In its first five months of operation, the PRU provided pre-arraignment representation in 1,024 unique cases.
The report also quantified the cost-savings of the program. The PRU saved 4,689 jail beds during its initial five months of operation. This translates to $806,508 saved due to the program so far. The PRU, which is seeking continued funding from San Francisco supervisors, would cost only $440,501 in FY ’18-’19 and only $462,567 in FY ’19-’20.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi noted that the PRU also has a direct and positive impact on people’s lives.
“Because representation starts right away, our investigator and attorneys talk to witnesses and discover exonerating evidence earlier. That means innocent people don’t have to languish in jail,” Adachi said. “More people are able to keep their jobs, maintain stable housing and protect their families from separation.”
The full report can be found here.
Among the findings from the researcher is the conclusion that the Public Defender’s Pre-Trial Release Unit has demonstrated promising initial success in meeting its goals of 1) reducing wealth disparities in access to pre-arraignment representation, and 2) reducing the jail population through increased access to pre-trial release.
Specifically, their analysis reveals that PRU intervention reduces the length of pre-trial incarceration:
– Individuals who receive arrest-responsive intervention are twice as likely to be released at arraignment when compared with similarly situated, non-treated arrestees. Similar, not-treated arrestees are released at arraignment 14 percent of the time, compared to a 28 percent rate for treated arrestees. This appears to be due primarily to attorneys’ increased ability to argue for release at arraignment, including increased access to client information, early investigation, and in-person presence at arraignment.
– Among all eligible parolees, parole advocacy provided by the PRU reduced the length of incarceration by 230 hours (approx. 9.5 days). This is consistent with qualitative evidence that suggests parole advocacy increases the speed at which parole holds are lifted and reduces the number of parole petitions filed.
The research also found that PRU intervention is reducing wealth disparities in access to critical pre-arraignment benefits.
The analysis suggests:
– PRU intervention may uncover evidence that may positively impact later case outcomes. This evidence, including surveillance footage and/or witness testimony, may be impossible to access post-arraignment.
– By simultaneously advocating for arrestees and helping them navigate the legal process, PRU intervention likely increases procedural justice.
– By contacting the employers, family members, and friends of arrestees, the PRU may help clients’ keep their jobs, maintain stable housing, and protect their families while incarcerated. This increased stability during incarceration may lead to increased stability in the longer-term.