For the first time in nearly 40 years, the number of state prisoners in the United States has declined, according to the U.S Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. While local jails have also experienced a modest decrease, those numbers may change with the diversion of state prisoners from state correctional facilities to local jails.
Why the diversion? State budget woes. However, local governments have not fared better. State aid and property taxes, which together account for more than half of local revenues, are dropping simultaneously for the first time since 1980, according to the Pew Center on the States.
A significant amount of local revenue goes toward corrections — the local county jail — and half of those costs can be attributed to inmates in pretrial detention. Those are individuals who have been arrested, accused of a crime — not convicted — who remain in jail awaiting trial.
Pretrial detention increased at the same time “get tough” policies drove prison populations through the roof. In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, the number of people held in pretrial detention in local jails increased by more than 20 percent. According to a study by Northwestern University, fewer people were released pretrial without bail and fewer were granted bond.
In Pennsylvania, everyone charged with a crime other than first degree murder is entitled to bond. The criteria considered by the court includes the nature of the offense and the likelihood of conviction; employment status; family ties; length of residence in the community; prior bail history; criminal record and among other criteria, the defendant’s risk of flight.
In Ohio, bail considerations include “the seriousness of the offense charged, the previous criminal record of the defendant, and the probability of the defendant appearing at the trial of the case.”
The primary purpose of bail is to insure that the defendant appears for all future court proceedings. Bail is not punitive, its purpose is administrative.
Failure to grant pretrial release may come in the form of setting a bond that is beyond the defendant’s ability to post. Bond need not be a million dollars to be excessive. For some defendants a $2,500 bond, that may require a $250 payment to a surety company, is beyond reach.
What does that mean for taxpayers? If a defendant with a $2,500 bond can pay $250 he is out and on the street. If not, taxpayers are on the hook.
An informal survey of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio and Lawrence and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania found it costs between $65 and $80 a day to house an inmate.
If that inmate who couldn’t pay $250 sits in jail for six months awaiting trial, the cost to taxpayers is about $12,000. As of Oct. 2, Lawrence County had 239 inmates; Trumbull County had 292 and Mahoning County had 520. All three institutions say that more than half of those inmates are in pretrial detention.
That is not just a local trend. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at midyear 2011 about 61 percent of inmates in local jails were not convicted, they were awaiting court action on a pending charge — a rate that hasn’t changed since 2005.
Some defendants being held pretrial belong in jail. Some are not eligible for bail, some are a legitimate flight risk and others a danger to society. However, some just can’t afford a monetary bond. Timothy Murray, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, says as many as 65 percent of those detained pretrial are there because they cannot afford the bond.
The first step toward easing the cost of pretrial detention is the ability to determine who needs to be detained and who doesn’t. Last year, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Laurie O. Robinson said, “focus on individualized assessments of risk, as opposed to making categorical assumptions based solely on charging and other factors that really don’t tell us what we need to know.”
Ohio H.B. 86 passed last year provides for adoption of a single validated risk assessment tool for adult offenders. Once we know who needs to be detained we can explore detention diversions for those who don’t need to be detained. House arrest, electronic monitoring and day reporting are all much more cost effective than sitting in jail waiting for trial.
Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney for Lawrence County. You can read his blog, The Cautionary Instruction, every Friday at www.post-gazette.com. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino.