Report: 4,700 defendants in jails statewide eligible for pretrial release

click to enlarge Spokane County Courthouse - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak Photo
Spokane County Courthouse

Daily, almost 5,000 defendants sitting in jails across the state who have yet to be convicted are eligible for release before their trial, which could save taxpayers millions annually, a new state report says.

The report, which was compiled by the Washington state Auditor's Office, titled "Reforming Bail Practices in Washington" and released last week, examines the potential impact of expanding pretrial release services in the state, such as electronic home monitoring or bus tickets to get defendants to courts, as an alternative to holding defendants on bonds.

The cash bail system has long been derided by critics as unfairly incarcerating poor defendants who can't afford to pay their bond and get released, and, ultimately, resulting in worse outcomes for those defendants who remain incarcerated. Proponents, meanwhile, argue that it is a necessary tool to ensure that defendants appear in court and don't commit new crimes during the length of their case.

In short, they found that roughly 4,700 inmates held in Washington jails "on any given day" are likely candidates for pretrial services, and that releasing them could save taxpayers between $6 million and $12 million per year. Additionally, the report notes that pretrial incarceration also has negative impacts on defendants in terms of their case outcomes and employment prospects, in addition to significant cost to the public.

"When defendants cannot afford to pay bail, they remain in jail until the trial. Keeping them in jail is costly to the taxpayers," the report reads. "Perhaps more importantly, extended jail time before trial can have significant consequences for defendants, as they become more likely to be convicted, more likely to receive a longer sentence, and less likely to gain and
maintain future employment."

The analysis estimates that the average daily cost of pretrial services in five Washington counties that offer such services is $3.59 per person daily, roughly $7.33 less than the estimated daily average cost of pretrial incarceration, and that jurisdictions could up their cost savings even further if they closed wings of jails as a result of increased release of pretrial defendants.

Additionally, the report's authors point to Spokane and Yakima counties as jurisdictions that have effectively deployed alternatives to pretrial incarceration with promising results when it comes to public safety. By analyzing court and criminal history records in both counties' court systems, the report's authors found that defendants released on bail actually committed new crimes at higher rates than those released into pretrial service programs. The report also indicates that defendants in Spokane County released into pretrial service programs show up in court more often than those released on bail.

"The audit’s analysis suggests that bail may not be essential to ensure defendants
appear in court or remain arrest-free," the report reads. "There may be many reasons why defendants do not appear in court or commit crimes. Some may be unintentional and not overcome by financial incentives. Some defendants may simply forget their court date. Others may suffer from mental illness or addiction. In these cases, the financial incentive of
bail may be ineffective and unnecessary."

While the auditor's report doesn't make any specific policy recommendations, another report released on Feb. 21 from the state Pretrial Reform Taskforce — a group of criminal justice system stakeholders from across Washington — called for jurisdictions to implement a slew of new policies to reduce pretrial incarceration, such as implementing more pretrial services. 

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.