SAN FRANCISCO—The Judicial Council at its July 21 business meeting will receive the final report on California’s pretrial pilot program showing its overall positive effect on courts, defendants, and the public.
A study of the program tracked more than 422,000 defendants awaiting trial in 17 superior courts. The study showed:
- Pretrial programs increased the release of people facing misdemeanors by 5.7% and by 8.8% for those arrested for felonies
- Pretrial programs decreased the likelihood of rearrest for people awaiting trial by 5.8% for those booked on misdemeanors and by 2.4% for those booked on felonies
The study was an unprecedented collaboration among the courts, probation, and sheriff departments, with each entity collecting and providing data for the final report, supplemented by data from the state Department of Justice.
Goals of Pretrial Release Pilot Program
The fiscal year 2019-20 state budget earmarked $75 million for the council to launch and evaluate three-year pretrial projects in 17 superior courts. Their goals: to “increase the safe and efficient release of arrestees before trial, use the least restrictive monitoring practices possible while protecting public safety and ensuring court appearances, validate and expand the use of risk assessment tools, and assess any bias in the process.”
Subsequent to the funding for the three-year study, the fiscal year 2021-22 state budget provided ongoing funding to implement pretrial release programs statewide.
Failure to Appear Rates Improved with Reminder Systems
In addition to lower rearrest rates, the pretrial study found a 6.8% decrease in the number of defendants who failed to appear for court-ordered appearances in misdemeanor cases; however, it identified a 2.5% increase in failure-to-appear rates in felony cases.
But failure to appear rates can greatly improve with a court date reminder system, which included both manual and automated phone calls and text messages. A separate study by the court in Alameda County showed its reminder system improved court appearance rates from 47% to 87%. By the end of the three-year pilot program, 14 courts had implemented reminder systems, and now most trial courts in the state also have reminder systems.
The study also notes that as courts decrease the time it takes for cases to resolve post-COVID-19, failure to appear rates may also decrease.
First Large-Scale Evidence of Risk Assessment Tool Accuracy in California
The 17 pilot courts were required to use a pretrial risk assessment tool to inform judicial officer pretrial release decisions. Pretrial risk assessment tools use data to assess the likelihood an arrested person will fail to appear in court or will commit a new offense during the pretrial period. In a separate report, the pretrial risk assessment tools used by the pilots were rigorously studied and found to do a good job estimating a defendant’s risk.
Pretrial Programs Mitigated Release Disparities in Misdemeanor Cases
While implementation of the statewide pretrial program increased pretrial releases across the board, positive effects were especially large for Black individuals. Before program implementation, Black and Hispanic defendants booked on misdemeanors were 1.2% less likely to be released pretrial compared to White defendants booked on similar charges. After program implementation, Black defendants were 3% more likely to be released compared to White defendants, while Hispanic defendants had no significant difference in pretrial release rates compared to White defendants booked on similar charges.
Other Items on Council Meeting Agenda:
Trial Court Funding: The council will consider allocating funding provided in the fiscal year 2023-24 state budget for trial court operations, employee benefits, pretrial programs, and implementation of the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act.
Budget Change Proposals: The council will consider submitting 10 budget change proposals to the California Department of Finance for consideration in the fiscal year 2024-25 budget, which include increased funding for new judgeships, self-help services, and courthouse maintenance.
Judicial Branch Technology Funding: The council will consider allocating state funding to trial and appellate courts to help them expand their use of technology.
Tactical Plan for Technology: The council will consider an update to the tactical plan that describes the judicial branch’s efforts to further enhance technology in the courts and improve services for the public.
Courthouse Naming Policy: The council will consider adopting a revision to its naming policy for newly constructed, renovated, and existing courthouses to provide consistency when naming them after location and case type or a person.
Legal Assistance Grants for Civil Cases: The council will consider grants to qualified legal services providers and court partners to provide legal representation and improved court services to low-income parties—regardless of their citizenship or immigration status—in civil matters involving housing-related matters, domestic violence and civil harassment restraining orders, probate conservatorships, guardianships, elder abuse, or actions by a parent to obtain legal or physical custody of a child.
The complete council meeting agenda and council reports are posted to the California Courts Meeting Information Center. A link to a live webcast of the meeting will be on the California Courts website on the day of the meeting.