According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report, an estimated 11.3 million people were arrested in 2013. Between the time defendants are arrested and they make their initial appearance in court, what should happen to them? Pretrial services offered during this time have the potential to reduce crime while maximizing resources and public safety. That said, the pretrial services a jurisdiction offers, which might include initial screenings, risk assessments, release recommendations, and pretrial supervision, often vary significantly across agencies.
New York State developed pretrial standards based on research and evidence. These standards, which are periodically reviewed and revised, are intended to guide pretrial services in the state. Prior to 2012, however, it was unclear how closely jurisdictions adhered to these standards. While every state faces its own challenges, the New York Association of Pretrial Service Agencies (NYAPSA) and the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (NYCJA) wanted to make sure pretrial practices are consistent across the state. But to do so, NYAPSA and NYCJA realized they needed help. They sought assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to examine pretrial services utilization and practices in the state and then develop an action plan for improving practices statewide.
Cultivating Change in the Pretrial Process
To better understand and analyze the problem, and offer solutions, BJA designated the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) to provide technical assistance (TA) to NYAPSA and NYCJA. In order to get a thorough understanding of the issues faced by the state, CJI took a three-part approach - conduct a statewide survey, then a series of focus groups, and finally work with state leaders to develop a plan forward. The survey was issued to all probation department and community-based pretrial release program directors and asked 88 questions intended to help CJI gather comprehensive information about the state of pretrial services. Those participating in the focus groups—one in Rochester with 19 participants, one in Albany with 18, and one in New York City with 13 total participants—were asked similar questions.
The results of the survey and focus groups showcased wide-ranging and sometimes inconsistent practices across the state when it came to pretrial services.
- Jurisdictions vary widely in how frequently they recommend release under supervision. In three of the state’s four largest jurisdictions—New York City, Westchester County, and Monroe County—pretrial services is located within an independent agency and the focus has historically been on release on own recognizance (ROR). In most other counties, the pretrial program is based within the probation department and supervised release is a central function of pretrial services.
- Participants raised a number of issues related to risk assessment—ranging from the very small amount of time available to conduct interviews and assessments, to the lack of privacy for conducting interviews in some jurisdictions. These would often lead to situations in which defendants were less able and/or less likely to share personal and pertinent information that would help set the terms of a potential pretrial release.
- According to focus group participants, detention bed space has a significant impact on the number of defendants released pretrial. Participants in jurisdictions with recently-constructed jails reported that few defendants are released pending trial; those in jurisdictions with overcrowded jails reported that they are focused on detaining defendants who were not interviewed or whom they deemed inappropriate for pretrial release under any conditions.
After thoroughly analyzing the information, CJI worked closely with state leaders to develop three realistic and achievable goals.
Goal 1: Communicate with stakeholders concerning pretrial services survey and focus group findings, and lay the foundation to support the establishment of a New York State commission on pretrial justice. The first goal was to promote study findings and build interest among stakeholders in participating in activities to improve pretrial services. This included drafting a transmittal letter with key issues needing attention, requesting involvement, and referencing state pretrial standards; publicizing the release of the report and posting it on the NYAPSA website; and distributing it to programs and departments statewide, asking them to circulate it and promote it locally.
Goal 2: Increase awareness of New York State pretrial release services standards and best practices. The second goal aimed to advance professional development for pretrial and probation personnel, including developing and reviewing modular training with materials that can be adapted to the audience regarding standards, key elements, and best practices for pretrial services. This goal also sought to develop a training calendar by working with state leaders.
Goal 3: Find resources to support efforts to increase awareness of pretrial release services standards and universal implementation within the state. The third and final goal aimed to actively seek governmental funding and grant opportunities and clearly identify and articulate what funding is to be used for, how much funding is needed, and the goals that funding will help to accomplish.
Since CJI completed its work with NYAPSA and NYCJA, the organizations participated in a statewide meeting of pretrial managers to discuss pretrial issues, data collection, and best practices. Subsequently, the organizations proposed a New York State Pretrial Network to bring key pretrial executives together on a regular basis to discuss pretrial issues and promote standards. NYAPSA and NYCJA are currently planning a statewide pretrial conference that will be held in October 2015.
New York’s investment in better understanding the current landscape of pretrial services utilization and practices shows its commitment to developing fair, impartial, and consistent practices statewide. New York’s experience identifying inconsistencies in pretrial services through focus groups and surveys, as well as the process of setting goals to improve the state of pretrial services, can serve as a replicable model for other states seeking to better their current practices.
For more information on pretrial services, please visit the websites of The Pretrial Justice Institute and the National Association for Pretrial Service Agencies. You can also find project-specific resources and reports on CJI’s website.
If your community is in need of similar assistance or if you know of a community that would benefit from these types of offender supervision strategies, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.