In DepthCriminal Justice

Researchers probe jail before trial

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Science  29 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6434, pp. 1374-1375
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6434.1374

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Cities and states across the United States have started to move to ease cash bail and other pretrial detention policies that critics say are unfair, counterproductive, and contribute little to public safety. But the reforms—backed by liberal and libertarian groups alike—have drawn stiff opposition from some law enforcement organizations and the bail bond industry. Relatively little hard evidence informs the battle. Now, a new wave of social scientists is jumping into the breach, using controlled studies to find out which practices result in higher court appearance rates—and which ones actually keep communities safe. Recent results suggest, for example, that jailing defendants before trial, unless they pay a deposit known as cash bail, is ineffective, at least in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But such research is hard to apply widely, and scientists face other obstacles, including police, prosecutors, and prisons reluctant to share data.