Study Analyzes Effects of Misdemeanor Bail Reform

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By Tommy Nguyen

PHILADELPHIA, PA – The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice has conducted an ongoing research study designed to inform the current public debate over the necessity and proper scope of pretrial reform because jurisdictions throughout the country are considering reforms to pretrial policy in light of a growing recognition that pretrial detention, along with the imposition of cash bail, is a major contributor to U.S. mass incarceration.

However, the rise in certain categories of crime in the past few years across the nation has led some to argue that pretrial reform should be suspended.

Critics claim that bail reform has fueled an increase in crime by releasing dangerous individuals who would have otherwise been in custody had they been held pretrial.

Harris County, Texas has been an epicenter of the debate, implementing an ambitious set of reforms targeting people charged with misdemeanors, and making progress in bringing out reform to pretrial policy for felony defendants.

There are, however, mixed public opinions on how these efforts have developed. Some claim that the reforms have successfully reduced detention and associated costs, while others blame the recent increases in crime on the reforms that began in 2017.

Meanwhile, the existing research on the pretrial process has demonstrated that pretrial detention contributed to the increasing conviction rate, incarceration length, guilty plea rate, and future crime rate.

The researchers at Quattrone Center focused primarily on what they called a “natural experiment” in Harris County that abruptly increased the pretrial release rates.

One of the key findings of the study was that misdemeanor bail reform produced more lenient outcomes and reduced the system’s imprint without negatively impacting public safety.

The decline in plea rates, conviction rates, the likelihood of jail sentences, average sentence length, and the number of new cases are among the measured effects of pretrial reform.

These results should be encouraging, according to the study, because they identify a reform that reduced both front and backend use of incarceration while contributing to future reductions in criminal activity.

This study demonstrates an approach to reducing the imprint of the system and associated human costs, and largely benefits Black defendants and individuals coming from particularly poor neighborhoods.

It was also discovered increasing pretrial release rates did not substantially impede the resolution of cases, as the overall impact appears to be extremely small.

Moreover, the study showed, expanding pretrial release under the O’Donnell injunction did not fuel a spike in crime as some have claimed while attempting to tie bail reforms to the recent uptick in crime rates in Harris County. Despite a sizeable increase in the pretrial release rate, there is simply no trace of an elevated rate of future felony offenses. 

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About The Author

Tommy is a sophomore majoring in Economics and minoring in Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He is an international student from Vietnam and fueled with the frustration agaisnt flawed justice system that lets down the minority. He is aspired to become a criminal justice attorney and will hopefully attend law school in 2025.

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