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Advancing Pretrial Equity and Justice

A multi-site study of pretrial decision-making practices


To build the evidence base for reforms to bail, pretrial release, and other aspects of the criminal legal system.


In six jurisdictions across the United States, we are studying and implementing the Public Safety Assessment, a tool that minimizes disparities in the criminal legal system while protecting community safety.


Our work will improve the Public Safety Assessment tool and inform the ongoing national discussion about reforming pretrial systems, which is critical to achieving equity.

Popular discourse concerning reforms for the criminal legal system often focuses around issues such as private prisons and mandatory minimum sentencing. While reforms in these areas are important, targeting only these issues overshadows the need for advancing equity and justice within other areas of the criminal legal system, especially pretrial systems.      

For example, to combat the crisis of mass incarceration, it is necessary to expand eligibility for pretrial release and to eliminate or reduce the costs of money bail. At any given time, of approximately 650,000 people detained in local U.S. jails, some 427,000 have not been convicted of a crime.

Nationwide, the median bail cost for a felony charge is about $10,000—an amount that often exceeds the equivalent of months of income for defendants and their families. Denial of pretrial release and the exorbitantly high costs of bail often lead defendants to spend months or even years in jail prior to trial. The already unnecessarily punitive nature of pretrial systems is further exacerbated by brutal and inhumane conditions within many local jails, as well as racial disparities within pretrial detention rates.

In pursuit of progress in pretrial justice and equity, RTI International serves as the National Research Partner for the Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) initiative, supported by Arnold Ventures. This initiative focuses on integrating research and practice with the implementation and study of evidence-based reforms. APPR works towards the advancement of five core principles:

  1. Ensuring that pretrial decision-making honors the presumptions of innocence and liberty;
  2. Treating all people connected to the criminal legal system with dignity and respect;
  3. Eliminating identity-based systemic disparities, thereby producing equitable outcomes for all people;
  4. Identifying and implementing strategies that serve to support people during pretrial release, while also prioritizing safety of victims and broader communities; and,
  5. Grounding pretrial policy in empirical research that is continuously refined through the study of policy implementation.

The Public Safety Assessment

The APPR initiative is now implementing the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), which is proving to be an effective tool in advancing pretrial equity and justice.

Defendants are considered for bail after initially being taken into custody and charged. However, holding defendants in jail for even a few days can have extremely disruptive impacts on families and communities, such as removing a primary caregiver for children or the elderly from a home, causing absence at work leading to unemployment, or experiencing violence within a detention setting.

Moreover, even when defendants are eligible for pretrial release, they may not have access to the funds necessary to post bail, potentially causing them to spend months in detention. APPR provides court systems across the country technical assistance and statistical validation with   the evidence-based PSA tool. This could lead to higher rates of pretrial release and lessen the financial conditions of release, while also preserving public safety.

The PSA tool estimates failure to appear in court pretrial, new criminal arrests while on pretrial release, and new violent criminal arrests while on pretrial release. The tool relies on pretrial records of roughly 750,000 cases drawn for 300 U.S. jurisdictions, further validated with pretrial data from more than 500,000 cases.

The tool uses nine factors related to an individual’s age and criminal history to estimate successful pretrial outcomes. These outcomes can then be used to assist judges in determining eligibility for pretrial release and associated conditions. It is available to any jurisdiction free of charge, and unlike some pretrial assessment tools, the PSA’s algorithm and related statistical analyses are publicly available.

RTI’s Role: Mixed Methods Research and Localized Advising

As APPR’s National Research Partner, RTI International is collaborating with six Research-Action Sites (RAS) across the United States to improve and study their pretrial systems: Fulton County in Georgia; Montgomery County in Alabama; Pierce County and Thurston County in Washington; Pulaski County in Arkansas; and Ramsey County in Minnesota.

RTI’s work with RAS sites focuses on identifying opportunities for more equitable practices within pretrial systems in local jurisdictions, primarily by studying the use and performance of the PSA. Through this work, RTI is discovering how jurisdictions decide whether to implement the PSA as a part of pretrial decision making, how to further improve the predictive accuracy of the PSA in local contexts, and the relationship between conditions of release and pretrial behavior and court appearances.

RTI researchers maintain direct dialogue with local RAS contacts on a regular basis to better understand decisions about the implementation of the PSA and other pretrial improvements, and to assist practitioners in understanding the value of data for improving the efficacy of their pretrial systems.

RTI’s work with APPR also aims to minimize statistical bias by studying how the PSA tool performs across different demographic groups. RTI is also observing how system actors in the RAS engage community members and include their input in community safety decision-making processes.

The voices of community members most directly impacted by the policy choices of local criminal legal system networks are often left out of the conversation, yet their engagement and inclusion at the table is crucial in the advancement of equity in justice in pretrial systems. In addition, RTI researchers examine the construction of a shared dialogue on pretrial reform with various legal system stakeholders including judges, law enforcement, defense counsel, and community groups. Beyond this, RTI’s work with RAS sites also aims to analyze how the PSA can be fine-tuned and individualized to better serve local jurisdictions.

This research work is of critical importance for advancing equity and justice within pretrial systems, allowing for greater safety and dignity for all individuals, families, communities, and organizations interacting with the criminal legal system.