UPenn study reveals bail reform successfully reduces number of people imprisoned

a reduction in conviction of people charged with misdemeanors did not impact public safety

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice analyzed the effects of bail reform on the number of people imprisoned for misdemeanors. The August findings provide answers to many pressing questions about the future of bail reform.

Amidst criminal justice reform pressure and pushback as crime continues to rise since the pandemic, a new report showed that implementing cash bail reform, which allows low-level offenders to wait for trial from home rather than from jail, did not increase crime but instead preserved public safety and caused less strain on public resources. Accused people who the reform affected also were convicted less and served less jail time

In fact, data three years out from the injunction suggests an overall decrease in crime rates. 

Heaton hypothesized that the reform would have the effect of reducing guilty pleas, conviction rates, the likelihood of a jail sentence and average sentence length, and either not increasing or possibly reducing future contact with the criminal justice system. In order to answer these questions, the study compared misdemeanor defendants released within 24 hours with a control group of people charged with state jail felonies. 

State jail felonies are low level felonies, and so members of this group are similar to defendants charged with misdemeanors, except that their pretrial detention was not affected by the injunction. Upwards of 55,000 cases were plotted for the year of 2017, with the injunction coming into effect about half way through the year. 

Image: Paul Heaton, University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center

The data reveals a stark jump in the release rate for misdemeanor defendants immediately following the injunction, proving that the injunction successfully reduced pretrial detention. 

Overall, the data revealed that after the injunction: 

  • Guilty plea rates fell by 15%
    9% of defendants avoided conviction
  • The likelihood of jail sentences fell by 15%
  • Average sentence length decreased by 8 days

A concern often raised by proponents of pretrial detention is that pretrial release could increase rates of re-offenders. However, the study showed that this is not the case. The number of new cases filed for each defendant years after initial filing did not increase. In fact, data three years out from the injunction suggests an overall decrease in crime rates. 

In fact, data three years out from the injunction suggests an overall decrease in crime rates. 

The data ultimately found that, following the injunction:

  • There was no increase in future contact with the criminal justice system after 1 year
  • There was a 6% decline in new contact with the criminal justice system after 3 years
Image: Paul Heaton, University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center

This study marks an important moment in the ongoing public debate on if and how bail reform should be introduced. Jurisdictions across the country have to balance the interests of defendants and under-resourced county jails with the general public’s safety. Heaton calls the results of the study an “assurance” for these jurisdictions; public safety does not have to be sacrificed in order to reform misdemeanor bail policies. 

In fact, bail reform can improve public safety, all while keeping low level offenders out from behind bars. The Harris County experiment has succeeded, and moving forward, counties can expect positive outcomes from implementing similar bail reforms. 

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Research and reporting intern at The Des