Pre-trial Release Program Addresses Plight of the Poor

Roughly 60 percent of people housed in American jails have not been convicted of a crime, only accused of one. Jasper County, Missouri officials have already begun identifying defendants who are in jail only because they can’t afford bail. Erik Theis, court administrator for the 29th Circuit in Jasper County, says the program is a response to overcrowding in the Jasper County Jail, which was regularly 15 percent over capacity last year.

Phoro by Susan Madden Lankford

Phoro by Susan Madden Lankford


Twenty-three people have been released under the program since pre-release officer Larry Stout began work in May after his position was included for the first time in this year’s county budget. He interviews defendants and looks into their backgrounds, then assesses the risks of releasing them using tools adopted from the increasing number of U.S. jurisdictions that have decided to carefully release more people from jail before trial.

One of the tools is a simple points system, backed by a statistical analysis of defendants who have been released pre-trial elsewhere in the country. If the defendant has not lived in the area for at least a year, that’s one point. If he has ever failed to appear in court, that’s another. If he has previously been convicted of a violent crime, that’s two points.

After a few more questions, the court official adds it up. If the score is higher than 13, the defendant is deemed “high risk” and will likely be held until trial. But if the score is below six, the defendant’s file is marked “low risk,” meaning he is statistically likely to show up for court.

That gives the judge solid grounds to release the defendant without bail.

Jasper County is at least the fifth county in Missouri to conduct risk-assessments on defendants being held pre-trial. Many have used materials provided by the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which provides jurisdictions with tools for measuring the risks of releasing defendants from jail to await trial.

Theis used research funded by the foundation to get county officials on board with the policy, arguing that holding defendants prior to trial has few benefits. The policy also has the support of public defense lawyers, who are appointed to represent the indigent.

Darren Wallace, chief public defender for Jasper County, points out that detaining people before they have had a day in court also leads to harsher sentences. That’s because many people will choose to simply plead guilty rather than wait in jail for a trial that could be months away.

“I have no doubt that that is a big factor in many people’s decision to not wait for a trial, when waiting means they’ll be in jail,” he said.

In Kentucky, where bail bonds are outlawed and a statewide pre-trial services office obtains the release of tens of thousands of people annually, the results are stronger. Fully 86 percent of pre-trial releases showed up to trial without any complications.

Theis says the pre-trial program in Jasper County poses no threat to the bond business, anyway, because most of the defendants who will qualify for release under the new program couldn’t afford a bond anyway.

“I think it’s a complement to the bond system,” he said. “These people are not able to use those services.”

In Missouri, top judges have signaled a desire to spread the state-operated pre-trial release offices.

Mary Russell, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, praised pre-trial release programs in a State of the Judiciary address in 2014, saying they had netted savings of nearly $4 million over two years by keeping people out of jail. Now the statewide courts are looking into ways to help more counties imitate Jasper County.

“When you’re looking at the trend in criminal justice, there is kind of a push on pre-trial release,” Catherine Zacharias, an attorney for the Office of the State Courts Administrator, said.

State officials have created a risk assessment document with the help of the Arnold Foundation, which it plans to distribute to interested counties. And while county officials would still have to organize their own programs and fund them locally, Zacharias says the state could eventually distribute some funds for pre-trial programs.

Jasper County officials say their main objective for the policy is a reduction in the prison population. To that end, Theis says he hopes to see the program grow.

In nearby Greene County, a pre-trial services office has been active for more than a decade, and pre-trial risk assessments have become integrated into the courthouse routine.

That hasn’t stopped the county’s jail from bursting at the seams, an illustration of the complex challenges that face efforts to ease pressure on county jails.

Between 1997 and 2016, the number of inmates held by Greene County on an average day more than tripled, from 200 to 701. The county pays to house dozens of inmates at jails in other counties.

But the crowded jail is only the most obvious sign of a court system plagued by administrative delays at every step. Even when a person is convicted of a crime in Greene County, for instance, they typically wait another 145 days to learn their sentence.

While the pre-trial program has not solved the problem, Rodney Hackathorn, head public defender in Greene County, says it has helped.

“It’s pretty much become a way of life,” he said. “It works. But in our area here, it’s not enough to keep up with the ever-increasing case load.”

Greene County has three staffers working to fill out the risk assessments forms. Those who have a chance of being released pre-trial can wait as much as three weeks before being interviewed. The office is involved in the release of roughly six defendants per week, and they look into many more cases.

Although Greene County’s sluggish courts have made it difficult for the pre-trial office to measure its performance in terms of reduction to the jail population, staffers say they see the impact of their work during daily check-up phone calls with clients.

They know that jail time can have devastating lives held together by a shoestring.

“The less time people spend in jail, the better chance they’ll have of keeping that job, of keeping that apartment,” said Jarod Denney, a staffer in the pre-trial office. “It turns into this downward spiral. They lose their job, lose their house. How can we expect someone to stay in jail for three months, lose everything, and then get out and do well?”

Bail bonds have been outlawed in Kentucky since 1976. Instead, defendants are released before trial after an interview with a court employee. More defendants show up for court in Kentucky, compared with the appearance rate nationwide.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford


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