Policy Brief

Reforming Connecticut’s Pre-Trial System

Replacing monetary bail with a system that uses effective alternatives based upon risk assessment.

In Connecticut, individuals charged with crimes face very different outcomes before trial-outcomes tied more to how much money they have than the risk they pose to society. For example, those who are charged with a crime and can afford to post bail remain free until their trial date, with little accountability. But poor defendants-even those charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes-often sit in jail until their trial dates, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars without preserving public safety, or else they just plead guilty, regardless of their actual complicity. This has led to a pre-trial system that is neither just nor cost-effective. Furthermore, it fails to prioritize public safety.

States like New Jersey are leading the way on reform. Last year, the state replaced the pre-trial system with one that incorporates a data-driven, risk-based assessment tool and alternatives to monetary bail. In Connecticut, little data drive decisions for bail determinations, and often the poorest offenders-even those whose charges pose little threat to society-just languish in jail until their trial dates because they are unable to afford their bail.

It’s time for Connecticut to re-think its pretrial system. In this brief, Reason Foundation and Connecticut’s Yankee Institute for Public Policy make the case for systemic reform, by replacing monetary bail with a system that uses effective alternatives based upon risk assessment. This brief offers several tiered recommendations for reform to make Connecticut’s pre-trial system more just and more cost-effective-all while maintaining public safety.

A. Replace Monetary Bail with More-Effective Alternatives Based on Risk Assessment

First, Connecticut should consider eliminating its cash bail system, replacing it with a system that utilizes a pre-trial risk assessment tool that assigns individuals into low-, moderate-, and high-risk categories. Assessments would be based on objectively evaluated predictors of a defendant’s risk of flight or re- offending, including criminal history, current charge, etc. Such a system would allow judges to assign low- risk but cost-effective alternatives to bail, such as home monitoring or check-ins with supervisors.

Low-risk offenders who are unlikely to commit additional crimes and are likely to return for their court dates could be released on their own recognizance. Adding such an assessment tool would provide data to inform a practice Connecticut
already uses.

The state can manage defendants placed into a moderate-risk category, as an alternative to issuing a financial bond, with tools such as supervision, electronic monitoring, or other interventions. And of course, the relatively small group of individuals who are determined to present a high risk to public safety should remain in detention until trial.

The cost of housing individuals in a Connecticut DOC facility is roughly $120 per day. Of course, allowing low-risk individuals to be released on their own recognizance will cost the state nothing, bringing about huge cost savings. Even in cases where required supervision is warranted, the cost is much less than that of housing an individual in a facility. According to estimates by the federal court system, it costs roughly $7 to supervise an individual pre-trial.11

Replacing cash bail with a system that uses data-driven risk assessments would be much more cost-effective for Connecticut taxpayers, and would protect public safety by requiring individuals who pose a significant threat to remain detained until their trial. It would also ensure that poor, low-level defendants are no longer disproportionately affected by Connecticut’s cash bail system.

Other states have already transformed their bail systems. In 2014, after finding that a high number of poor, low-level defendants were being held in jails, unable to post bail, New Jersey completely overhauled its bail system both by using assessment tools to examine the risk of arrested individuals and allowing non-monetary alternatives to bond. When the law is implemented in 2017, judges will use a validated risk assessment tool before an individual’s preliminary bail to determine what type of pre-trial release is appropriate, based upon an individual’s risk of reoffending or flight before his or her trial. So far, the passage of the reform has been praised as a positive step forward. Indeed, the state’s supreme court chief justice has touted it as one of the most significant pieces of criminal justice reform legislation.

B. Risk Assessment/Non-Monetary Bond for Nonviolent Offenders

Even if eliminating cash bail is deemed politically impossible, at a minimum Connecticut should consider creating a risk assessment tool for making bond determinations. Offenders who are assessed to pose a low risk of reoffending or flight would be released on their own recognizance, while those who pose a medium risk would be offered various levels of bond that are proportional to the crime they’re accused of committing. Those posing a high risk could receive no bond whatsoever, a high bond or a high cash-only bond.

This is less ideal than replacing the system with risk assessments and no bail, since individuals can still be released back into society before their court date based upon whether they have the financial means to post bail instead of the risk they pose, but it will at least make the system more just and cost-effective than it is currently.

C. Non-Monetary Bond for Low-Level Offenders Only

At the very least, Connecticut legislators should consider eliminating monetary bail for defendants charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes that pose a minimal threat to society, such as prostitution, sixth-degree? ?larceny (which includes shoplifting a candy bar), or simple drug possession. Eliminating monetary bail for the lowest-risk defendants would greatly enhance both cost-efficiency and justice by ensuring that poor, low level defendants no longer languish in jail before their trial on the taxpayers’ dime. However, while this reform will have the least positive impact of the three recommended reforms primarily due to its lack of a risk assessment tool, it would represent a modest step forward toward making Connecticut’s pre-trial system more cost-effective and just.