Bail reform is a hot topic, as we’ve mentioned here, here, and here. Because there is great passion surrounding the issue, with both opponents and proponents having “skin in the game” from a financial perspective, there is often a lot of misinformation bandied about, and many emotional arguments. With bail bond agents on one side and (in many cases) pretrial release operators on the other, the argument is spiraling. What we’ll attempt to (continue to) do is take a dispassionate look at what’s really going on, from the perspective of statisticians, who look at numbers and graphs and don’t deal in emotion. The question, then – what, really, happens once defendants are released, pending their trials? All the numbers below are offered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
Cases Dismissed & Acquittals
It turns out that 60% of released defendants were eventually convicted, meaning that MOST of those released are found guilty. Of these, 46% were felony cases and 14% misdemeanor. The conviction rate for those detained, on the other hand, was 78%, including 69% felonies. Those numbers make sense to an extent – some defendants are not offered the option of bail. These are often the most likely to flee or most likely to pose a safety threat due the violent nature of their alleged crimes. Another interpretation, however, is that those released are afforded a better opportunity to line up a defense. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between, though balance and acknowledgement of nuance is in scant evidence in the debate.
Released Defendants are Waiting Too Long
Here’s where things get interesting. Those who are held in jail – either because they were not granted bail or could not afford the fee for a bail bond – were tried three times faster than those released. This also makes sense, as there is a natural tendency to try cases that involve those who remain in jail. Human nature is to reduce crowding, but also to hold individuals for alleged crimes no longer than is actually necessary. The flip side of this argument is that a proper defense – mounted by a defendant who has been released – is more attainable. With more resources, those released may often have attorneys who will take measures to delay a trial (their clients are, after all, not sitting in jail, so not going to trial is a good thing).
What are the numbers? Those released waited a median 127 days from the time of arrest until adjudication. For those detained, that median number was 45 days.
Perhaps more interestingly, those released via “financial release,” i.e. – bail – waited roughly one month longer for their trials. This supports the notion that those with money are better able to mount a defense, and thus wait longer for their trials. It is by no means, definitive however.
The Longer Defendants are Out…
When defendants are released, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time between arrest and trial and the likelihood of “pretrial misconduct,” defined as failure to appear for court or re-arrest. Roughly one-third of bench warrants for “failure to appear” were issued within 30 days, and roughly two-thirds were issued within 3 months. Re-arrests were similar, with 29% occurring within 1 month and 62% within 3 months.
1 in 3 Released Defendants Back in Trouble
Here’s the real number that should shed some light on the nature of criminal behavior. From 1990 through 2004, one in three defendants released were charged with some form of pre-trial misconduct. The most likely? Failure to appear for court.
This is troubling, since the point of bail is to ensure appearance in court – removing the option of financial release (bail bonds) – means that there is less incentive to appear, and there is demonstrated correlation between the two.
Of those release, 23% failed to appear, with 17% arrested for a new offense and 11% total arrested for a felony. The numbers are fairly clear – depending on what you consider to be “high” numbers of recurrence, there appears to be a very good likelihood that those released – and especially those released without financial conditions – that defendants will be re-arrested or otherwise “get into trouble.” And that’s a fact that doesn’t bode well for bail reform.