Richmond Pushes Away from Cash Bail, Joining Trend

Michael N. Herring, the Virginia city’s top prosecutor, said his staffers will now recommend release without bail for most defendants. He said the cash bail system “strikes me as unfair” and does not ensure that accused criminals will appear in court.

Richmond, Va., has joined a growing number of American cities and states that are abandoning cash bail for many criminal defendants. The city’s Times-Dispatch reports that Richmond prosecutors will no longer seek cash bail bonds for many of those awaiting trial. In theory, the cash investment by defendants ensure their good behavior and their presence at trial. But Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring said, “It strikes me as unfair, and it doesn’t ensure anything.” Prosecutors in his office are now instructed to make a good-faith assessment of a defendant’s risk to the community. “If they don’t believe the person poses an unacceptable risk of harm, then they are to recommend [to the judge] release with appropriate pretrial conditions,” he said.

If a prosecutor believes a defendant poses an unacceptable risk, then they are simply to recommend that the person be confined to jail, Herring said. Bill Farrar of the ACLU of Virginia said, “There’s plenty of anecdotal research to show that the cash bail system is slanted against people of color and people who don’t have the ability to pay.” Many states and cities have instituted bail reforms, although some are considering restoring cash bail in some instances after criticism that the reforms are too lenient.


Legislation Alone Won’t Decarcerate America, Warn Advocates

Reducing US prison populations requires a strategy that engages all the players in the justice system, from courts to community residents to the media, a panel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice was told.

Changing state and federal guidelines on sentencing and bail won’t be enough to reduce America’s prison population, according to two of the nation’s foremost advocates for justice reform.

“It’s going to involve litigation, it’s going to involve organizing, it’s going to involve academia, (and) it’s going to involve elevating and honoring the voices and efforts of those who are most impacted by the system,” says Robin Steinberg, a co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, which has been a prominent player in the movement for bail reform in New York City.

“There is no one strategy that works,” Steinberg, who is now CEO of The Bail Project , a national effort to reduce racial inequities in bail, told a panel last week at the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“So it’s going to involve the media, it’s going to involve certain communications strategies….whatever leads us to change the narrative.”

Judith Greene

Judith Greene. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Steinberg’s comments were echoed by Judith A. Greene, a former Soros Senior Justice Fellow and contributor to the new book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health, who described how a combination of “organizing, litigation, public education, and ballot measures” was responsible for a 31 percent decline in New Jersey’s prison population between 1999 and 2014—one of the highest decarceration rates in the country.

New Jersey’s effort began with “litigation against a parole board that wasn’t doing its job,” received a boost from a report by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) group advocating the elimination of  mandatory-minimum drug sentences, and was reinforced by changes in plea guidelines established by the state attorney general’s office, Greene said.

“Then finally about three or four years ago, about the same time New York dropped the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state legislature essentially took the last legal legs out from under the drug school zone laws,” she added.

“So it was a combination….they didn’t have ballot measures, but they had organizing, they had civic engagement. And they had an elite body in the state’s highest court pushing to effect major drug reform.”

Speaking about bail reform, Robin Steinberg commented that the Bronx Freedom Fund, founded in 2005, was borne out of frustration “at watching bail get set on clients, and watching our clients get hauled into jail cells and the inevitable plea of guilty…and at some point my co-founder said we should just start a bail fund to bail people out.”

It took the Bronx Freedom Fund two years to find Jason and Joe Flom, the primary investors in their project. The fund finally took off in 2007 and began to bail people out.

“The lawyers in the Bronx Defenders would refer clients that they thought would be eligible for the bail to the Bronx Freedom Fund,” she said. “The [fund] would then do an interview and began to pay bail.”

What the Bronx Freedom Fund learned after being in operation for eleven years “exploded our beliefs” about bail, Steinberg said.

Counter-intuitively, the results of the Bronx Freedom Fund showed that people do come back to court even when their cash isn’t at stake.

“Once we started using donated dollars to pay people’s bail and we began to learn that 96 percent of our clients came back to court even though it wasn’t their money, and they had nothing at stake in terms of the money,” she continued. “[That] kind of exploded our ideas about money being an incentive to bring people back to court.”

Freedom Fund staff discovered that “97 percent of clients held on misdemeanors in The Bronx were pleading guilty, and when we paid people’s bail with philanthropic dollars, what wound up happening was almost half the cases got dismissed,” said Steinberg.

“The majority of the other half of the cases wound up in non-criminal dispositions—which have far fewer collateral consequences.”

The strategy of paying for defendants’ bail utilized by the Bronx Freedom Fund is known as a revolving-bail system.

The panel, titled “Decarcerating America,” was moderated by Nicole Fortier, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Program.

In another, earlier, example of a multi-pronged decarceration approach, Greene described how New York City evolved from a gang enforcement strategy, which had led to the over-incarceration of youth in poor, minority neighborhoods during the 1950s, to programs involving street workers who could help young people find alternatives to gang involvement.

After reform-minded Mayor John Lindsay was elected in 1966, “the city…. listened to sociologists who said this was a youth problem more than a crime problem, pointing out that most kids who are in gangs are not marauding and shooting people,” she said.

New York began applying a “social intervention” strategy that involved a range of innovative approaches, including hiring former gang leaders as mediators.

As a result, said Greene, New York was able to avoid the kind of gang violence that plagued Chicago and Los Angeles.

Officials in many cities across America still haven’t picked up on the lesson, she said.

“It breaks my heart to see the gang enforcement strategy travel east,” said Greene.

Files for this story were provided by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.


‘Smarter Justice,’ Bail Reforms Make Headway Across U.S., Advocates Say

Progressive prosecutors and scientific pretrial release systems are reducing jail populations, say Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. New policies by newly elected Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, were cited as examples.

Policies of prosecutors elected on progressive platforms around the U.S. show promise to reduce the nation’s incarceration totals, two experts told a gathering of state attorneys general.

Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation called “remarkable” and “stunning” a set of new policies announced by newly installed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Krasner told his staff last month to offer shorter prison sentences in plea deals, decline to file marijuana possession and many prostitution charges, and explain case-by-case why taxpayers should pay thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate people.

Travis suggested that Krasner’s practices reflected some of the findings of a Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which he formerly headed. The project “seeks to understand the criminal justice response to lower-level offenses, from arrest to disposition.”

During a discussion of bail reform, Travis questioned why suspects charged with misdemeanors “should be put in jail [pretrial] if the typical sentence is non-custodial.”

Another panelist at the meeting, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, described the new prosecution trend in some cities as “smarter justice.”

Frosh noted that since 2013, police in his state have been empowered to issue citations instead of arresting people for many lower-level offenses, a change he said has “reduced the workload for judges, police and prosecutors.”

Travis and Frosh spoke on a panel Friday in Washington, D.C., at a conference organized by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine for the National Association of Attorneys General on “Reducing Violence: Innovations That Work.”

Their main subject was efforts around the nation to eliminate or reduce the use of cash bail and base pre-trial release decisions on a scientific assessment of the risk that defendants will commit more crimes or fail to make future court appearances if they are released.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals last year overhauled the state’s bail system, requiring judges to consider whether defendants are able to make a bail payment when they set conditions for release.

Under the change, about one-fifth of defendants are being held because they can’t or don’t pay bail, down from 40 percent in the months before the reforms were enacted, chief state district judge Judge John Morrissey said in January.

Attorney General Frosh said on Friday that the policy shift has resulted in a six percent decline in the state’s jail population. “Overall, more people are being released,” he said.

Frosh was a proponent of bail reform when he served as a state senator. He persuaded his fellow senators to approve a reform plan but it “crashed and burned” in the other legislative body, the House of Delegates, amid opposition from the bail bond industry.

After he was elected Attorney General, Frosh took another tack–asking the state judiciary to impose the same kinds of changes he had advocated as a legislator.

Preliminary results show that the changes have worked so far, with defendants returning to court and committing new offenses after release at about the same rate as they did under the previous system, Frosh said.

Attempts by bail bondsman in the legislature to reverse the judicially-imposed policies have failed so far.

Travis said New Jersey has had a similar experience under a statewide change that went into effect last year, in which judges use an algorithm devised by his foundation to help make pretrial release decisions.

The initial results are “promising,” he said. The number of people charged with minor crimes who were locked up until trial because they couldn’t post bail fell by 20 percent in the system’s first year, found a report issued last month.

Travis acknowledged criticism that the new system perpetuates racial disparities in pretrial releases. Some say that more minorities continue to be denied release because risk assessment tools consider defendants’ prior criminal records, where minorities are disproportionately represented.

“It’s a tough one,” he said of the issue, which is still being studied.

Overall, Travis contended, it is good that more attention is being paid to the “profound” power of judges to decide on the pretrial release issue, which each year affects the family and employment situations of millions.

Seema Gajwani of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, who advocated for bail reform previously at the Public Welfare Foundation, told the conference that 11 million people in the U.S. cycle in and out of jails each year and that even having to serve a few days in jail after arrest can be “incredibly destabilizing” for many defendants.

“The number one reason that people stay in jail is that they are poor,” she said.

Although most of the discussion focused on low-level offenders, Frosh contended that the cash bail system doesn’t make much sense for alleged serious offenders, either.

He noted that the process essentially allows judges to set a money amount that defendants can pay to win release and “continue to wreak havoc.” The current bail system used in most of the U.S. “doesn’t make sense at any level,” Frosh said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Too Poor to Raise Bail, 100,000 New Yorkers Sent Behind Bars

According to a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, white defendants were more than two times more likely to be released on the same day bail was set than black defendants.

A report by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that in eight of New York’s 62 counties, some 100,000 people spent time in jail between 2010 and 2014 because they couldn’t afford cash bail; and of these pretrial detainees, over 60 percent were eventually charged with misdemeanors or violations.

The report, entitled Presumed Innocent for a Price, sheds some light on who’s been doing time in New York’s county jails because they can’t pay cash bail.

Until now,”the scope of the state bail problem outside of New York City has not been well understood,” said the report, released Tuesday.

The report was released ahead of Wednesday’s “day of action” in the state capital, where several organizations are gathering “to advocate for comprehensive criminal justice reforms, including fixes to New York’s bail, speedy trial and evidence-sharing practices,” writes the NYCLU.

Using records obtained through public record requests, the NYCLU analyzed bail data from eight small, medium and large counties in the state.

More than 5,800 New Yorkers were held on bail for violations only, most commonly for harassment, disorderly conduct, or trespassing. 41 percent of detainees charged with one of these violations were held on bail that exceeded the maximum fine they could be required to pay if found guilty.

According to the report, white defendants were more than two times more likely to be released on the same day bail was set than black defendants.

“While black and white New Yorkers each accounted for 45 percent of pretrial detainees who spent any time in custody after bail was set in their case, 48 percent of those who spent at least one night in custody were black compared to 41 percent white, and 50 percent of those who spent at least one week in custody were black compared to 38 percent white,” the study said.

NYCLU data was collected from Albany, Dutchess, Monroe, Niagara, Orange, Schenectady, Ulster, and Westchester counties.

This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Justice Reformers Launch Scorecard on Progress in a ‘Watershed’ Year

The Vera Institute of Justice plan s to tracks major trends and developments in criminal justice throughout the country, focusing on 12 key areas, ranging from gun ownership to sexual assault.

A national criminal justice advocacy and research group has launched a project that tracks major trends and developments in criminal justice throughout the country, focusing on 12 key areas of the justice system.

The State of Justice Report, released by the Vera Institute of Justice, also peers at the system through a number of different “lenses,” spotlighting bipartisan coalitions, racial justice, disability rights, and public health issues.

Vera, calling 2017 a “watershed year for criminal justice,” points to New Jersey’s lead on bail reform under a Republican governor, as well as other states that passed legislation limiting money bail and/or pretrial detention, such as Kentucky, Connecticut, New Mexico, and California. Locally, New Orleans passed a bail reform ordinance; and both Philadelphia and San Francisco issues reports on the impact of cash bail, signalling that leaders are taking a serious look at revising the system.

According to Vera, last year brought a growing recognition of the connection between domestic abuse and gun violence. While there has long been a preponderance of data linking intimate partner homicides and guns, “gaps in laws, policies, and practices in many jurisdictions continue to allow people subject to domestic violence protection orders or who have been charged with domestic violence crimes to possess firearms,” the authors write.

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of federal lawmakers introduced legislation to strengthen background checks on gun owners. And “eight states (Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington) adopted laws restricting gun ownership for people convicted of domestic violence or subject to a restraining order, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 27.”

Other bipartisan efforts that made progress last year were improvements to how sexual assault evidence is processed (SAFER Act of 2017), as well as state-level reforms in Louisiana and Massachusetts. Finally, says Vera, Democrats and Republicans around the country are pushing back against the Trump administration’s “tough on crime” agenda.

Vera Institute’s chapters on opioids, policing, bail, prosecutions, public defense, jails, youth justice, immigration justice, victims, sentencing and decriminalization, prisons, and reentry can be explored on their website.

This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie. Readers’ comments are welcome.


NJ Bail Reform Called a Success, System Going Broke

In its first year, New Jersey’s historic bail overhaul slashed the number of people charged with minor crimes locked up until trial because they couldn’t post bail by 20 percent. Yet the system is “simply not sustainable” because it relies on court fees rather than the state budget, a report from the New Jersey judiciary says.

In its first year, New Jersey’s historic bail overhaul slashed by 20 percent the number of people charged with minor crimes locked up until trial because they couldn’t post bail, according to a new report from the state judiciary, says

The problem is that the new system is already going broke.

Last year, New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail, moving to a system where judges can order defendants jailed based in part on a risk assessment that weighs the suspect’s criminal history and the charges they face. The dramatic transformation created “a more comprehensive, reasonable, and most importantly, a fairer system of pretrial release,” says the new report.

“New Jersey has successfully transformed an antiquated money bail system into a modern, risk-based system that relies on empirical evidence to better identify the risk a defendant poses,” says Judge Glenn Grant, acting judiciary administrator.

The report warned that the new system is “simply not sustainable” and faces a “substantial annual structural deficit” because of its funding mechanism, which relies on court fees rather than the state budget. At the beginning of this year, the judiciary was spending more on the program than it was collecting in fees and is still expected to hit the wall within a year.

The findings portray an uncertain financial future for the new system, a top achievement of former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. The changes drew broad support within state government but derision from local law enforcement and some community leaders, who argued it allowed the release of too many people accused of serious crimes.


The Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention

If you are released ahead of your trial date, you’re 14 percent less likely to be found guilty, according to an American Economic Review study. Compared to those who can’t make bail and are held in pretrial detention, your economic outlook is better too, researchers concluded in a study of court records in Philadelphia and Miami-Dade counties.

If you are released ahead of your trial date, you’re 14 percent less likely to be found guilty, according to an American Economic Review study. Compared to those who can’t make bail and are held in pretrial detention, your economic outlook is better too, researchers concluded in a study of court records in Philadelphia and Miami-Dade counties.

Larger effects were observed for individuals with no prior offenses in the previous year.

The study authors, noting that “little is known about the impact of pretrial detention,” examined data linking over 420,000 individuals arrested and charged for criminal offenses to administrative court and tax records in Philadelphia County between 2007 and 2014, and Miami-Dade County between 2006 and 2014.

They concluded that while pretrial detention may benefit society in some circumstances “by increasing court appearances or by reducing future crime,” the long-term benefits to both individuals and society may balance those risks.

Their paper, entitled “The Effects of Pretrial Detention on Conviction, Future Crime, and Employment: Evidence from Randomly Assigned Judges,” found that individuals released before trial “are substantially less likely to be convicted of any offense due to a reduction in guilty pleas.”

They also found “that those who are released pretrial receive more favorable plea deals than those who are detained.”

The study concludes by conducting a partial cost-benefit analysis that “accounts for administrative jail expenses, costs of apprehending defendants, costs of future crimes, and economic impacts on defendants.” The researchers estimate that the net financial benefit to the charged individual of pretrial release at the margin (cases in which bail judges disagree about bail conditions) is between $55,143 and $99,124 per individual.

Citing figures showing that more than half a million individuals are detained before trial on any given day—the world’s highest pre-incarceration rate—the authors said it was worth considering policy alternatives that kept people out of detention until their trial date.

“Our results suggest that it may be welfare-enhancing to use alternatives to pretrial detention, at least on the margin,” the authors said. “For example, to the extent that recidivism rates are not appreciably higher than under pretrial detention, electronic monitoring may provide many of the same benefits of detention without the substantial costs to defendants documented in our analysis.”

The authors of the paper, published in the February 2018 issue of the American Economic Review were Will Dobbie, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University; Jacob Goldin, Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford University; and Crystal S. Yang, Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

This study is available for download here by purchase only. Journalists can get a free copy by sending an email request to

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Rikers Island Activists Call for Bail Reform

Leaders of the campaign to close New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail are celebrating the announcement that one of the facility’s nine detention centers will be closed this year. But they said that fundamental justice change requires reform of the money bail system.

A month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure of one of Rikers Island’s detention centers by this summer, grass-roots activists who powered the movement said fundamental change in criminal justice policies required reform of the bail system.

The creation of “a fairer, more just pretrial system that ends money bail” was critical to long-term change in New York State, a Jan. 30 “victory” rally held at the New York Society for Ethical Cultural in Manhattan.

“No one should be held just because they can’t come up with the money for bail,” activist Marilyn Reyes-Scales said at the rally.”It’s become a ransom people have to pay to get out of jail.”


Activists at the Rikers rally on Jan. 30th expressed pride in their success and determination to keep pushing for criminal-justice reform. Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow

Pointing out that almost 70 percent of the people held in New York State jails have not been convicted, Reyes-Scales said, “This isn’t Monopoly—they’re playing with real people’s lives!”

The Jan. 2 announcement that the George Motchan Detention Center, which currently houses nearly 600 men, will be the first of Rikers’ nine jails to shut its doors later this year was the first step in a phased closing down of the jail complex that’s projected to take 10 years.

Often ranked as one of the 10 worst jails in America, Rikers Island, which now houses about 6,800 people and at its most overcrowded held 20,000, was the target of the #CLOSErikers campaign, which grew in strength as it organized rallies and marches beginning in 2016—including a march in September 2016 on the bridge leading to the 400-acre island itself, which sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

There have been complaints of civil-rights violations, corruption, violence, and excessive use of force at the jail.

Closing down the jail with a long record of abuses was the group’s goal, one which received crucial support last year from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, also known as the Lippman Commission because it was chaired by former Chief New York State Judge Jonathan Lippman.

“The time has come to close Rikers Island,” co-wrote Judge Lippman and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a widely read New York Times article following the report’s release.

Rikers, a “de facto penal colony” and a “stain on our great city’s reputation,” has problems “that run too deep” to be “fixed with a fresh coat of paint, new trainings or even a major facilities overhaul,” they wrote.

At the Ethical Cultural rally, speakers exulted over Mayor de Blasio’s post-Lippman-commission announcement that it would now be “the official policy of the city of New York to close Rikers Island,” while pointing out the earlier instances when “he tried to hide from us,” and stressing that 10 years is way too long to wait.

“We demanded (that) the world see the hell that was on that island,” said community activist Shanequa Charles, claiming their campaign “changed the national conversation about criminal justice.”

But speakers said Rikers’ documented miseries are only one part of the problem with criminal justice in New York State.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer decried the “commercial bail industry” and said, “Judges play a role in this—there are more humane ways to treat people. A judge can change a person’s life. We need to hold judges accountable.”


Rikers Island victory rally Jan 30. Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow

As they push for an accelerated closure of Rikers Island, leaders of the grass-roots campaign said they will look to Governor Andrew Cuomo in his next budget to “commit to ending mass incarceration in New York and include gold standard bail, speedy trial and discovery law reform proposals.”

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Brandon J. Holmes, the #CLOSErikers campaign coordinator.

“Probation and parole are tools that the criminal justice system has used to target my community,” said Vidal Guzman, JustLeadershipUSA Community Organizer.

“These are traps that keep fueling a cycle of criminalization and poverty across our city and state. I know from my own experience on parole how much we need to change these systems. That is why we’ll keep organizing directly impacted communities that can bring attention to the need for reforms that limit probation and parole sentences and use the least restrictive versions of supervision whenever it is used.”

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.


Justice Success Story: How Illinois Cut Its Prison Population

The sentencing overhaul championed by Gov. Bruce Rauner has already cut inmate numbers by 7,000. But reforms at the county level, influencing who goes to prison in the first place, have been a critical ingredient in the state’s success—and could be a model for jurisdictions elsewhere.

As states grapple with persistently high incarceration numbers, with more than two million people still in prisons and jails nationwide, the main focus has been on the back end of the justice system: reducing the time inmates stay behind bars.

Some reformers are urging a similar focus on the front end: incarcerating fewer people in the first place.

One state that is trying to do both, with some success, is Illinois.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has set an ambitious goal of cutting the prison rolls 25 percent by 2025. Illinois’ incarcerated population jumped from fewer than 10,000 inmates three decades ago to more than 48,000 in 2015—the nation’s eighth largest state inmate total. Providing cells, food, medical care and other services costs taxpayers $1.3 billion annually.

Under Rauner’s policies, the state has already cut that number by almost 7,000.

If prison is the caboose of the criminal justice train for offenders, the local criminal justice system is the engine, the place where decisions are made on who goes to prison.

A Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform appointed by Rauner urged that local criminal justice officials focus on collaborative polices that would better control state incarceration numbers.

One of the first Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC) was started in central Illinois’ McLean County in 2011 to address chronic overcrowding at the county jail.

At the time, McLean ranked highest among the state’s 20 largest counties in its rate of sending drug defendants to state prison, with a total of 92.1 per 100,000 residents, according to Malcolm C. Young, former Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, who studied variations in crime and arrest rates and commitments to state prisons among Illinois counties when he directed a program on prison reentry strategies at the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University.

The McLean coordinating council, comprising elected and appointed policy makers, community members, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, met around the same table for the first time to examine the strengths and shortcomings of the local system.

“The CJCC erased the boundaries between the departments as we all worked together for the overall criminal justice system,” former County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped initiate new policies to prune the jail population, said in a recent interview. Emery did not seek re-election in 2014 and now is law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield, Illinois.

Emery started the practice of letting judges and other decision makers know when his jail was nearing capacity, putting more emphasis on the possible release of low-level offenders at bond hearings. The decision of who would be released remained with judges, but the sheriff’s alert added jail population to the court’s list of considerations.

Defendants’ participation in a pre-trial release program allowed them to build a record of conduct for use later in their cases, he said.

The pre-trial release reports “gave judges more options than incarceration,” when it came to sentencing, he added.

Before the reform measures, inmates who were unable to pay as little as $100 to be released on bail sat for months while their cases moved slowly through the court system.

Mike Emery

Former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped establish the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Photo by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler/The Pantagraph

In one of his first alerts to the chief judge, Emery pointed out that ten inmates were in jail on ordinance violations— the lowest form of criminal conduct. Now defendants on such infractions and similar non-violent offenses require only their agreement to appear for future court dates to avoid a jail stay, a major change in previous policy.

Data compiled by the McLean County justice council has since documented major changes in the jail population that reflect changes in both the number of inmates and the composition of the jail’s population.

By 2015, as jail usage began to tip significantly towards serious felony defendants, the total bed days for low-level felonies and misdemeanors—a measurement of overnight stays—were down an average of about 30 percent compared with 2007.

The county’s crime rate was also decreasing during this period, and police agencies have reported fewer arrests this year. The county’s total of 1,462 felony cases filed in 2016 was slightly below the previous year but generally were up since 2011, when about 1,100 felonies were charged.

The shift in McLean County to using the county jail mostly for holding defendants charged with the most severe offenses is a likely contributor to the lower numbers sent to state prison, David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University in Chicago,who served on Rauner’s commission, said in an interview.

“We know from research that if people are not detained pre-trial, their chances of going to prison are less,” Olson said.

The ability to remain out of jail while a case is pending allows people to keep their jobs, take care of their families and, in some cases, begin efforts to address mental health and substance issues that may have contributed to their offenses. Defendants also have greater opportunity to meet with their lawyers and assist with their defense when they are not sitting in jail.

Illinois Adult Redeploy, a state program that grants funds to community-based county-level services, provides financial incentives for counties to divert people from prison by keeping them in the community. It also played a part in reducing the number of defendants McLean County sends to state prisons each year. The state program returns money to communities to invest in local efforts in exchange for reducing the number of people sent to prison.

There also has been a policy shift towards probation as the preferred disposition in non-violent criminal cases. The move to provide defendants with several chances to succeed before sending them to prison has the support of all levels of the local justice system, including the judiciary, whose representatives serve on the council.

Cassy Taylor, director of McLean County Court Services and a member of the council, said in an interview the collaboration between local and state agencies “creates data-driven decision making, so we are making smart decisions with the resources we have.”

The result, added said Taylor, is an agreement on what she terms “the philosophy of community corrections.”

The preliminary results of these changes have been promising, according to data compiled recently by The Pantagraph from local circuit court records. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a steady decrease in the percentage of convicted defendants from McLean County sentenced to state prison. In 2011, 42 percent went to prison and 57 percent were put on probation. By 2016, 29 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison and 70 percent went on probation.

In all, state prison admissions from the country dropped from 385 in 2011 to 293 in 2016, court data showed.

Loyola’s Olson has been studying the impact of local criminal justice councils on justice systems in five Illinois communities, including McLean County.

The reduction in the number of McLean defendants heading to prison is indicative of what collaboration can accomplish, said Olson. “You’ve got this drop in admissions to prisons because in part they’re using prison less as a sanction,” he said.

prison population

Redeploy Illinois helped Kenneth Williams get back on his feet in 2013 following legal problems. The program offers financial incentives to counties in return for keeping offenders in community-based programs instead of prison. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

Almost seven years after it started, the McLean County council is still going strong. At its mid-January meeting in the local government center, members reviewed a report on the numbers of mentally ill people booked into the jail.

The broad base of knowledge developed by the council since its inception on the inner workings of the criminal justice system supports robust discussion on what the numbers mean—something that was not possible before 2011.

Illinois officials hope that four other counties that have created local criminal justice counties with the help of the state will have results similar to McLean County’s.

The local councils are just one ingredient in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.

Another is a sentencing reform law that that went into effect Jan. 1. Several provisions allow defendants who violate conditions of probation to be jailed locally instead of going to state prison. Another section provides that cases of minor offenders who would normally spend about nine months in state prison remain in counties instead, under probation supervision.

The law also allows state prison officials to give “supplemental sentencing credits” that offer an expanded group of inmates reduced prison stays for taking part in rehabilitation programs behind bars.

Finally, the law repealed mandatory prison terms for selected offenses, many of them drug crimes.

James Austin, a consultant based in Washington, D.C. and California who has studied the Illinois correctional system, estimates that the law’s provisions will reduce the state prison rolls by between 5,000 and 7,000, depending on how it is implemented across the state.

Overall, Austin says, the prison total could drop to 35,400 by 2024, a 27 percent reduction under Rauner’s governorship.

The new Illinois law was termed “unique” by Lenore Anderson, president of the national Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for survivors of crime, because it combines state-level and local reforms and adds new aid for crime victims.

“This is a model that other states should take a look at,” she said.

The Illinois reforms also got national recognition when the state was one of the first three chosen to take part in an ongoing National Criminal Justice Reform Project sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the National Governors Association (NGA) to promote system-wide criminal justice reform that requires on evidence-based policies.

“Illinois’ work provides a good example of how states can better support and partner with local entities to address crime and strengthen public safety,” says NCJA’s Tammy Woodhams.

Much criminal justice reform in recent years has been focused exclusively on governors and state legislatures, who have the power to set maximum prison terms and to have much control over the amount of time prisoners end up spending behind bars.

Young, who studied Illinois counties’ justice practices, said that “all criminal justice is local,” adding that justice policies are “highly individualized among localities,” and that “extensive variations in government responses demonstrate the significant part local discretion and preference play in determining how criminal justice resources, including prison incarceration, are allocated.”

Eric Cadora, of the New York City-based Justice Mapping organization, originated the term “justice reinvestment” that is now used as shorthand for cutting prison populations and using the money saved for providing services to offenders.

Cadora welcomes state-level reforms but says that local criminal justice systems like those in McLean County also should be a key source of changes.

“Local jurisdictions are in a unique position to share the risk for … substantial reform efforts because they are more directly accountable for both the potential costs and benefits associated with the impact of such reforms on their constituents,” he said.

This story is jointly published as a partnership between The Pantagraph and The Crime Report. Edith Brady-Lunny covers crime and justice affairs for The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Il., and is a former John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. They welcome comments from readers.


NYC Measure Would Probe Bias in Justice Algorithms

Critics charge that despite claims of objectivity, algorithms reproduce existing biases, disproportionately targeting people by class, race, and gender. Reformers say another New York City bill, the Right to Know Act, doesn’t go far enough.

New York City is taking steps to address algorithmic bias in city services. The City Council passed a bill that will require the city to address bias in algorithms used by the police department, courts, and dozens of city agencies, Vice reports. The bill would create a task force to figure out how to test city algorithms for bias, how citizens can request explanations of algorithmic decisions when they don’t like the outcome, and whether it’s feasible for the source code used by city agencies to be made publicly available.

Criminal justice reformers and civil liberties groups charge that despite claims of objectivity, algorithms reproduce existing biases, disproportionately targeting people by class, race, and gender. A Pro Publica investigation found that a risk assessment tool was more likely to mislabel black than white defendants. Studies have found facial recognition algorithms were less accurate for black and female faces.

Critics of predictive policing—which uses statistics to determine where cops should spend time on their beats—say it reinforces existing biases and brings cops back to already over-policed neighborhoods.

Rachel Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center of Justice said New York’s police department refuses to disclose the source code for the predictive policing program, claiming it would help criminals evade the cops. (Three academics argue in the New York Times that even imperfect algorithms improve the justice system.) The City Council on Tuesday approved the Right to Know Act, which requires changes to day-to-day interactions between police officers and those they encounter.

The measures drew opposition from criminal justice reform groups and the city’s largest officers’ union, the New York Times reports. Reformers said the bill omitted many common street encounters, including car stops and questioning by officers in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of a crime.