Panel Paper: Pretrial Justice System Reform Study: Mecklenburg County, North Carolina

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8228 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cindy Redcross, MDRC

This paper presents the results from an implementation and impact study of the pretrial justice system reforms that took place in June 2014 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The primary reform included the introduction of a pretrial risk assessment tool, the Public Safety Assessment. The PSA provides judges with information about an individual’s risk of failure to appear and risk of a new arrest in order to help them make release decisions at the time of initial appearance for a criminal charge. By providing information about risk and recommendations for release conditions, the PSA is designed to reduce the number of low and moderate risk defendants who are incarcerated pretrial and to ensure high risk defendants who pose a threat to public safety are detained without regard to the individual’s ability to pay monetary bail.

The impact analysis examines the effects of the jurisdiction’s policy changes, including the PSA, on pretrial release conditions, incarceration, case outcomes and new criminal activity. The impacts were estimated using an Interrupted Time Series. Data for this analysis was obtained from the North Carolina Court System and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office. The analysis includes all cases with criminal charges initiated in Mecklenburg County during the study time period between January 1, 2012 and June 30, 2016 and includes 118,520 total cases for 68,662 individuals.

Policy shifts that occurred with the adoption of the PSA produced a reduction in the use of secured bond (i.e. financial bail) and an increase in defendants being released on written promise (i.e. ROR) during the post-policy period. There was a corresponding reduction in the proportion of defendants incarcerated in jail pretrial. There were also significant reductions in the rates of convictions and guilty pleas after the reforms went into effect; these observed reductions are at least partially the result of higher rates of case dismissals. There was little impact on new crime and even less impact on new violent crime during the pretrial period. Overall, these findings are notable from a public safety perspective because there was an increase in “time at risk” due to less incarceration with little to no impact on new crime. The results also suggest that releasing more people pretrial can reduce incarceration without leading to an increase in missed court hearings or new crime.