Victims and Jail Reduction

This week, with an assist from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety+Justice Challenge and the law firm of Mayer Brown, we convened a national roundtable to discuss the relationship between the victims movement and current efforts to reduce jail populations across the U.S.  Participants included a mix of policymakers and practitioners, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim advocates, and police officials from across the country (New York, Texas, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky,  California, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia).

While the conversation was wide-ranging, it focused mostly on pre-trial supervised release programs and victims of domestic violence.  The Center for Court Innovation has a foot in both of these camps:  we are deeply engaged in reducing the use of pre-trial detention -- and in figuring out better ways to ensure the safety of victims of domestic violence.

From my perspective, there were two principal themes to the conversation.  To quote one of the participants in the roundtable, I would summarize the first theme as "This is the time." There was a palpable sense in the room that we are living through a unique moment of possibility, a time of real momentum for criminal justice reform in general, and jail reduction in particular.

To quote another participant, my second theme of the day was: "It's complicated." The roundtable highlighted a number of tensions that advocates of jail reduction will need to navigate in the days ahead if they hope to improve safety and win community support.

One obvious tension is the potential conflict between protecting the safety of victims and protecting the constitutional rights of the accused.  There was a significant amount of conversation about the necessity/desirability of attaching conditions of release to participants in supervised release programs who have been accused of domestic violence offenses.

Another topic that generated some debate was the use of risk assessment instruments -- How accurate are they?  What can an actuarial analysis tell us about any single defendant?  Are pretrial service agencies screening for lethality when there is a targeted victim?  How well do risk tools take into account the historic oppression of racial and ethnic groups in the United States?

The challenges of race and gender and sexual orientation/identity came up in numerous ways over the course of the day-long conversation.  Some participants underlined a concern that black communities in particular have a long history of being over-policed and over-criminalized in the U.S.  At the same time, there was an acknowledgement that these same communities have been under-protected from the threat of victimization.

The roundtable did not come to any concrete conclusions about how to address these challenges.  But we didn't expect it to.  At the risk of being a cockeyed optimist, I thought it was a valuable exercise to surface these issues in a trusting, supportive environment.  Indeed, several participants expressed a desire to continue the conversation when they returned to their hometowns.  I came away from the day feeling that there is a real appetite among jail reformers to figure out new ways to include victim voices, perspectives and concerns in creating and strengthening supervised release programs.  Now we just have to figure out how to give them the tools and support they need.

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