MDRC in the News

As Pretrial Reform Builds National Momentum, a New York Study Finds Only Upsides

Arnold Ventures


On any given day in the United States, nearly half a million people are detained in jail awaiting the resolution of their criminal cases, many because they cannot afford to pay bail. These defendants haven’t been convicted of a crime yet remain behind bars simply because they are poor. In 2016, New York City implemented a program designed to reduce the number of these pretrial detainees. The program gave judges the option to order supervised release (SR), rather than setting monetary bail, for defendants charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. (Defendants charged with domestic violence were not eligible for the program.)

Defendants granted SR were required to report to program staff regularly, were given reminders of their court dates, and were connected to social services like drug counseling and mental health support. The goal was to release more defendants from jail before trial without reducing court appearance rates or jeopardizing community wellbeing. To evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the city hired MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization, to conduct a multi-year study. MDRC researchers, led by research associate Melanie Skemer, collected and analyzed data, as well as interviewing program participants.

In order to determine the causal effects of the program, researchers compared outcomes for people granted SR to those who fell just outside the risk-score cutoff for eligibility in a rigorous regression discontinuity design.

The final study, released in September 2020, found that the program was largely successful in keeping court appearance rates high and new crimes low among defendants granted SR. While New York City’s program has now been supplanted by a more wide-ranging state bail reform law that went into effect in January 2020, the report’s findings remain relevant for other jurisdictions considering their own bail reform efforts. The for-profit bail industry and other opponents to reform often react to new pretrial programs with scary stories and misleading statistics that inaccurately claim releasing people before trial inevitably leads to higher crime rates. That’s simply not backed by reality. This research by MDRC contributes to a growing body of evidence that shows how counties and states can reduce their reliance on pretrial detention with zero risk to community safety.

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