The inconvenient truth about Pretrial Services: for the past fifty-plus years, pretrial services agencies have encroached on America’s criminal justice system, establishing themselves in local jurisdictions throughout the country. Their impact on our justice system is pernicious and largely misunderstood. I thought it necessary to explain and simplify it for those not familiar with the implications of being arrested.
This description comes in two parts. Part one is a cursory history of pretrial services, emphasizing why it was started, its’ stated purpose, and what it actually does. The second part examines its’ performance and the validity of the argument for eliminating private bail.
Pretrial Services: History, Perception, and Reality
In the early 1960s, a study was conducted in New York which found (1) many defendants remained in jail because they couldn’t pay the bail bond, and (2) people with strong local ties were unlikely to skip court. Known as the Manhattan Bail Project, it was conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice.
In 1968, the first pretrial services program was created in Washington, DC. It went beyond the stated mission of providing bail for the indigent and low income defendants. Rather, it commenced with the additional tasks of collecting and verifying defendant information, producing reports and recommendations, and supervising the defendants.
As pretrial services programs were implemented throughout the country, they immediately began expanding their scope and size. Ensuring the low-risk, indigent be released from jail was no longer a priority. The priority became growing the agencies, as well as enlarging their bureaucracy and scope. This was to the detriment of the American criminal justice system and especially the defendants assigned to them.
Defendants unlucky enough to be placed in pretrial services are immediately processed into a probationary punishment. It is not unlike being on probation after being found guilty. Defendants must report to a pretrial services agent, may have to submit to drug or alcohol tests, may have to attend educational courses and pay for them, etc. Additional warrants and charges may be brought against defendants for non-cooperation with pretrial services. These penalties and requirements are imposed without any findings or admission of guilt.
Since judges consider pretrial compliance when adjudicating cases, defendants have no choice but to cooperate. This may be the most insidious nature of it. A defendant’s case is now impacted by his or her compliance to pretrial services, which has nothing to do with the original charge. Defendants who go through pretrial services are punished for simply being arrested. This clearly trounces on the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle.
The effects of this are harshest on the low-income defendant, often setting them on a path of continual misdemeanor offenses perpetrated by pretrial services.
Pretrial services was created to perform a specific task, that being to bond out low-risk, low-income defendants. The inconvenient truth about Pretrial Services is it has ignored the stated goal to perform other functions, namely, transgressing on the defendants rights by subjecting the defendant to probation before trial. It is a glaring perversion of our criminal justice system.