Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pretrial Services: A County Gem

Sometimes, it’s easy to take things we do well for granted. And it takes others to make clear when we’re really good at something. That happened to me last week.

I spent several days in D.C. around a table of county leaders from across the country, all of whom are facing the same challenges we are when it comes to jail overcrowding and public safety. We all shared the same frustration: continued concerns about crime, limited budgets, the out-of-control costs of building and running jails, and a subset of our population with deep challenges that enter and exit our jails again and again, often for nonviolent crimes.

The question we grappled with? How do we maintain our priority of public safety and law and order within such strained criminal justice budgets.

While we discussed many aspects of this problem, one answer that became clear was to have a top-notch pre-trial services department. Something we have right here in Hamilton County.

Pretrial services essentially works as a front door to the jail, gathering detailed information and assessments on alleged offenders as they enter the system, and allowing judges and the “system” to make the best decisions possible to assure public safety, preserve precious jailspace, and reduce recidivism.

It’s a system that guides judges, in a world of limited space and resources, as they make the critical decision of which inmates stay in the jail pre-trial, under what conditions, or what other alternatives exist. The department figures out which non-violent offenders are most likely to appear at trial, which would most benefit from treatment and other types of rehabilitation so they don't reoffend, versus those where jail is clearly the only option to keep the community safe. And it helps us get away from a system where the simple ability to generate dollars quickly for bail is the deciding factor between who gets back on the street, and who stays locked up. After all, is that the best way to assure community safety?

Last year, Todd Portune and I expanded our pre-trial services work to include an even more robust approach. The results have continued to come in positively—reducing recidivism among numerous offenders, and alleviation of some of the overcrowding problem. In addition, more jailspace for those who need to be locked up, and less money squandered on bandaids like Butler County.

As we described our commitment to this approach in D.C., other county leaders all shared that our's was a model they thought would help counties more broadly. Most exciting, they want to study and use what we’re doing in Hamilton County as a model for counties across the nation.

For more information on this best practice, go to

1 comment:

Cherise said...

Thanks Mr. Pepper - great blog. The correct URL is (visit early and often!)

Cherise Burdeen
Pretrial Justice Institute

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