The Impact of Poverty on the Pretrial Process



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Over the past several years, criminal justice reform efforts have emphasized the pretrial process, focusing in particular on the relationship between poverty and bail decisions. There is a growing acknowledgment that bail decisions disproportionately affect the poor, notably through the use of money bail. As a result, many states and jurisdictions are adopting measures to modify their pretrial practices to address issues related to inequality, fairness, and overall effectiveness. Despite the enthusiasm for reform, research focusing on the impact of poverty on the pretrial process remains limited. This dissertation endeavored to better understand this relationship through a mixed methods design, resulting in three bail studies. The first study, based on self-report surveys, included an evaluation of experiences and perceptions of incarcerated pretrial defendants regarding the bail process, in particular focusing on the use of money for release. Potential collateral consequences and concepts of procedural justice were also explored. Self-report data were collected through surveys completed by pretrial incarcerated defendants held on money bail (220 individuals) within four jails across three states. The second study provided a complement to the first through the use of qualitative, semi-structured interviews. Similar concepts were explored, including experiences and perceptions of money bail, collateral consequences of pretrial incarceration, and perceptions of procedural justice. A total of 30 interviews were conducted with pretrial incarcerated defendants offered money bail within these same four jail facilities. In both studies, we found that financial reasons were the main reason pretrial incarcerated defendants did not pay their money bail. Additional reasons were also noted, which were explored in these studies. Study participants detailed a number of potential collateral consequences involving employment, housing, and issues related to children as a result of their pretrial incarceration. Moreover, perceptions of procedural justice helped expand our understanding of what fairness in the pretrial stage looks like. The third study included an analysis of administrative data (jail and pretrial services data) from a single jurisdiction over the course of one year. A total of 2,332 unique incarcerated defendants were included in this study. Multiple regression analysis was used to measure relationships between important pretrial decisions and outcomes and several indicators of poverty. We found a relationship between poverty and the final bail outcome of whether someone is given a money bail or no bail pretrial, whether someone pays or does not pay their money bail, the money bail amount, and the length of time incarcerated pretrial. We did not find a relationship between poverty and the initial court hearing decision. In addition, the legal factor of risk level, based on a pretrial risk assessment instrument, influenced each of our models. Ultimately, these studies collectively showed the impact poverty plays on the pretrial process in a number of ways. Implications of the results for each study are discussed.