Barred From Freedom: The Lack of Pretrial Detention Stats

Categories: Law & Order

Anthony Freda
Pretrial detention data is limited. There hasn't been much research to quantify specific details or tell a full story.

Todd Foglesong and Christopher E. Stone at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government addressed the dearth of pretrial detention stats in a report last year. "Whatever the motive to limit the use of pretrial detention, it is difficult to imagine the effort succeeding without a good indicator of the extent of its use," they wrote. "Such an indicator has proven surprisingly elusive in countries at every income level."

See Also: Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives

The researchers show how even the most basic data available can be contradictory. The tables below provide a useful and broad comparison of pretrial detention rates among a diverse selection of counties. Yet each table tells a vastly different story.

International Centre for Prison Studies via Harvard's Kennedy School

The table on the left encompasses all inmates, not just the ones in county jail. And America has a lot of state and federal inmates who are in prison for extended periods of time. The unsentenced rate -- mainly comprising county jail residents -- appears small by comparison. The table on the right, however, takes into account America's hefty overall incarceration rate. This is often as detailed as pretrial detention statistics get. And still, there's really not much you can take from these numbers.

As Foglesong and Stone explain:

If a society has a relatively high rate of crime, apprehends its many offenders effectively, holds them briefly, and then relies principally on sentences other than prison, it would have a high percentage of its prisoners in pretrial detention at any one time and a relatively high rate of pretrial detention per capita, but the actual use of pretrial detention might be quite reasonable. Pretrial detention is unjust when it is imposed on people accused of trivial crimes, used without even minimal evidence of guilt, entails inhumane conditions of detention, or lasts excessively long. ... Counting the number of people in pretrial detention on any day and comparing these with either the prison population or the national population can capture these forms of injustice at best only indirectly, and may not measure them at all.

This point applies locally. As we noted in a recent cover story, "Barred From Freedom," 83 percent of inmates in San Francisco county jails have not yet stood trial -- a rate more than 20 points higher than the national average. But while this number is undoubtedly high, it is certainly skewed by the fact that the county's overall incarceration rate is low thanks to progressive sentencing practices that keep many low-level offenders out of jail.

For now, we don't know how many of those inmates end up convicted, nor how long their average pretrial incarceration lasts. We know that at least some of them don't get convicted and at least some of them stay behind bars for several months. But there's no effective way to compare the scope of the problem from city to city.

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