Breakout Measure for Jail Overcrowding

The use of breakouts (disaggregation) of performance measures can reveal useful information that otherwise is hidden. Common breakouts of time to disposition measures, for example, are case type and location. They identify differences in timeliness of case processing across different case types and court locations. Other less common breakouts of on-time case processing measures may identify inequities among groups by income levels and indicate whether a court handles cases more swiftly for affluent litigants.

Another potentially very useful breakout that extends the meaning of on-time case processing measures is one that focuses on the median days that defendants spend in pretrial detention or custody. This breakout may be readily accessible via automated case management systems. It is a measure of jail overcrowding that is relevant to courts and one that may reap court managers considerable political capital in their criminal justice communities.

Many court managers in cities like Seattle and Phoenix face mandates or political pressures to alleviate jail overcrowding. They can be accountable and responsive to such pressures simply (1) by establishing a baseline of the median number of days defendants spend in pretrial custody, and (2) by vowing to examine case processing and important pretrial issues (warrants, initial appearance/arraignment, plea agreements, bail decision making, pretrial services, alternative sentencing) that, if addressed, might reduce the median number of days defendants spend in jail over time. If, in fact, the trend of this measure is downward over time, it can become a powerful demonstration that the court is doing something to alleviate jail overcrowding.

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