The Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative
The purpose of the Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative (PRJI) is to form partnerships between civil rights groups and criminal justice reform organizations in order to address pretrial detention practices that have a disparate impact on African American and Latino defendants and perpetuate the problem of mass incarceration.

Race & Bail Reform

MLK_jailWhen Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned one of his most famous writings, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he was detained in an Alabama jail cell on a money bond. Even though Dr. King posed no risk of danger to the community and there was no risk that he would leave Alabama and not return for future court proceedings—the only two legitimate purposes of imposing bond—his release from jail was conditioned on payment of a monetary bond.

The same money-based bail system still exists and routinely results in days, weeks, and even months of pretrial detention for non-violent defendants who are simply too poor to make bail–—disproportionately, men and women who are African American and Latino.

In a cruel irony, in 2014, a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)–an organization founded by Dr. King–testified against New Jersey legislation designed to reform the money-based system. Although the proposed law would release of thousands of nonviolent, low-risk pretrial defendants and reserve pretrial detention only for defendants found to be dangerous, some suggested that the proposal was “like slavery.”

Though inaccurate and ultimately ineffective in derailing New Jersey law, such opposition highlighted the urgent need for more direct involvement of the national civil rights community in bail reform movements. The Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative was created to unite these two communities in the shared goal of reforming unfair bail practices that discriminate against the poor.

Roundtable Discussion of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Bail and Pretrial Detention

On November 12, 2015, PRJI held a roundtable of bail reform advocates, civil rights lawyers, community organizers, and representatives from federal and state government that focused on  bail reform as a civil rights issue. Vanita Gupta, head of the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, provided a keynote address on the need to address racial and ethnic disparities in bail and pretrial detention. Other topics raised in the roundtable included

  • the causes and consequences of bail disparities;
  • alternatives to money bonds and pretrial detention;
  • ways to achieve bail reform through litigation, legislation and other means; and
  • the role of the civil rights community in reform efforts.

The first panel of the conference involved a discussion of the research on racial and ethnic disparities in bail by Dr. Stephen Demuth and Dr. Traci Schlesinger.

The second panel was a discussion of what a fully functioning pretrial services agency looks like from the initial diagnostic risk assessment, to community supervision and, where appropriate, treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

Three very different approaches to bail reform were discussed by Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law, Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and Cherise Fanno Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

On the final panel, Juan Cartegena of Latino Justice PRLDEF, Monique Dixon of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights all spoke passionately on why bail reform is a civil right and what steps each of their respective organizations can take to incorporate bail reform into their criminal justice reform agenda.



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Examples of Reform Efforts

Race & bail in New Jersey

The New Jersey bail reform bill, largely drafted by the New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is one of the most significant bail reform victories in the country to date. The new law will prevent thousands of people from languishing behind bars simply because they cannot afford the cost of bail.

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Racial Disparities & Bail Reform in Kentucky

Even without a major research effort, it was plain that, until recent reforms, defendants in Kentucky were being detained far more often than they were released pretrial. Some speculate that the marketplace drove bond amounts too high, where those with means could secure release and the poor were left to languish.

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Voices for Pretrial Racial Justice

“At least in my county, there is simply no question that the bail decision has a disparate impact on people of color. I believe there needs to be changes in the way the criminal justice system handles these low-level criminal cases on the front end of the criminal justice system. "
~Robert D. James, Jr.
Dekalb County District Attorney

Voices for Pretrial Racial Justice

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Stories of Pretrial Injustice


No Wisdom in the System – Kalief Browder (Bronx, NY)

When he was 16 years old, Kalief Browder was arrested in the middle of the night as he walked home from a party. A man in a police vehicle had identified him as the person who robbed him of his backpack and punched him in the face a few nights earlier. Kalief was charged as an adult and, because his family could not afford his $3,000 bond, he was sent to Rikers Island Correctional Facility, where he was held for over 1,000 days in jail. From age 16 to 19 he was held.

His trial was never scheduled, but in January of 2013—just five months before the charges against him were dropped—he was offered release on time served if he pled guilty to the robbery. And he was threatened with the possibility of 15 years in jail. Kalief, who maintained his innocence until the end, refused the plea deal: “Yes, I wanted to go home….The reason I didn’t take it is I didn’t do it….I didn’t feel the least bit comfortable saying, ‘I did it.’ I had to tell them, ‘No.’”

What wisdom can there be in a system that submits a teenager to this kind of pressure? And what kind of system holds an unconvicted boy for three years after his arrest without checking his alibi, conducting a lineup, trying him in court or explaining the ultimate decision to dismiss the case? Kalief has said that during his time in jail, he suffered beatings and abuse by guards and other inmates (video of this abuse has surfaced publicly) and he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement. He tried to kill himself six times and yet he never received any mental health treatment.

After his release, Kalief began to get his life back on track; enrolling in college and speaking publicly about the injustice he endured. On camera in interviews he was charming and humble but he was hiding the damage caused by his incarceration—mental health issues that had not been present before his arrest. He told people he was not alright. He said he was “messed up” from his experience.

On June 7, 2015, Kalief took his own life at his mother’s home.

Kalief’s story is one of multiple system breakdowns and failures. It is an American tragedy that could have been avoided if his lengthy pretrial detention had not been all-but guaranteed by the use of money bail.


Refusing to be the Fall Guy – Donovan Drayton (Queens, NY)

On October 1, 2007, 19 year old Donovan Drayton shot a gun in the air as he ran away from the scene of the fatal shooting of 30 year old Dwight Bent. Drayton, who had no prior criminal record and no real history with any of the principal actors in the shooting, was arrested 10 days later, at which point, with the support of his father, he made a decision to accept responsibility for what he had done, cooperate with the police and admit to firing the gun, which he claimed had been taken from Bent and thrown to him prior to the violence. He waived immunity, testified at his grand jury hearing and then steadfastly held to his story for several years while resisting pressure from prosecutors and the judge to become the “fall guy”–plead guilty to the homicide and cut years off his potential sentence. Almost six years after Mr. Bent’s killing, a jury basically agreed with Drayton’s assertion that he had shot the gun once in confusion and panic; they convicted him on only one count of weapons possession. By that time, Drayton had already spent more than five years in pretrial detention even though he seemed a likely candidate for bail or pretrial release.

Much of the case against Drayton hinged on the questionable plea deal statements of two of his acquaintances, members of the “Set Trip Mafia,” who had driven him to meet two other men, including Bent, on the morning of the shooting. During the period of his long pretrial detention, which featured many hearing delays and a few moments of prosecutorial excess, one of Drayton’s co-defendants even recanted earlier statements he had made about Drayton’s role, eventually taking sole responsibility for the shooting. However, even after the trial, the prosecutor couldn’t seem to let go of Donovan Drayton. He demanded that Drayton be sent to Rikers Island for the two months prior to his sentencing. Fortunately, the judge refused to compound the injustice experienced by Drayton in pretrial detention and did not return him to jail during the pre-sentencing phase.


Only Way Out – Victor Rivera (Newark, NJ)

In May of 2012, Victor Rivera was charged with verbally threatening a police officer, an accusation that he strongly denied. After not being able to afford his $25,000 bond or even the $2,500 required to pay a bail bondsman, he spent 11 months in jail before finally pleading guilty to the charge in April 2013. However, he continued to claim his innocence, explaining that he felt the plea was his only way out. He estimated that without the plea, his pretrial stay might have lasted at least another 4 or 5 months. After the plea, Rivera was sentenced to time served and immediately released, but he never got the chance to make his case in court, and the guilty plea is now part of his permanent record.

According to the New Jersey Drug Alliance’s “New Jersey Jail Population Analysis: Identifying Opportunities to Safely and Responsibly Reduce the Jail Population,” Rivera’s predicament is by no means unique: 1. close to seventy-five percent of the people in New Jersey jails are awaiting trial; 2. the length of pretrial detention is usually more than ten months; 3. nearly forty percent of the total jail population cannot afford bail (even at nominal amounts of $2500 or less); and 4. there is a significant backlog in criminal cases that sometimes freezes people in the pretrial phase. Faced with these facts—and having already served almost a year in pretrial detention—Victor Rivera made a choice that he did not like but that is not at all surprising.


The Long View – Perchelle Richardson (New Orleans, LA)

Teenager Perchelle Richardson received a simple cell phone—no designer frills or dazzling apps or special features—for her birthday, but a few days later when she saw an IPhone in a neighbor’s unlocked car, she took it. In “A Road Map for Juvenile Justice,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation discusses new research findings that “’the brain systems that govern impulse control, planning, and thinking ahead are still developing well beyond age 18.’” For Perchelle, the theft appears to have been an impulsive choice that she almost immediately questioned and regretted. She felt guilty and scared and didn’t know what to do. A few hours later, police showed up at her door. She handed them the phone; they arrested her. Perchelle had no criminal history, and the magistrate judge assured her that her older sister would be able to take her home, but when her sister arrived the next morning, she didn’t have the $200 in administrative fees for Perchelle’s unsecured $5000 surety bond. Perchelle’s attorneys could not get the court to waive the fees, and Perchelle remained in pretrial detention for 51 days.

This was a very long period indeed for 18 year old Perchelle. Her education had already been interrupted and compromised by the upheaval of Hurricane Katrina, which forced her family to move her in and out of a variety of schools, and now she was falling further behind. Possibly even more devastating for Perchelle, her family couldn’t afford to purchase her a phone card, and so she wasn’t able to talk to her mother at all during her detention. And without Perchelle to help babysit her younger brothers and niece while her mother and sister worked, the family had to move closer to another family member who could take on some of Perchelle’s babysitting responsibilities. Eventually, the district attorney decided not to prosecute but not before Perchelle and her family had suffered the harsh consequences not just of a teenaged girl’s impulsive choice but a bail system’s arbitrary nature.


Getting on the Judge’s Bad Side – Juan Delgado Perez (Las Vegas, NV)

In 2013, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the District Court “manifestly abused its discretion” in the case of Juan Delgado Perez. Perez, who had been arrested on a single drug charge, was not only originally given 15 days of pretrial detention without bail but was assessed a bail amount that had astronomically risen from $3,000 to $1,000,000, seemingly at the whim of the presiding judge. When reading the transcript of Perez’s arraignment, it is hard to determine exactly what he could have said or done to annoy Judge Douglas Smith so much, but it seems clear that the judge was mis-using the setting of bail and pretrial detention as a form of punishment, which is in direct contradiction to its purported purpose—to ensure appearance in court.

As the transcript reveals, it is at the point where Perez says “I’ll have to get another lawyer” that Judge Smith announces his decision to remand him, stating “With an attitude like that, you can sit in jail.” Perez, whose invocation of his legal rights and request for a new attorney may have initially infuriated the judge at arraignment, used those rights to very good effect when he filed the petition with the Nevada Supreme Court that resulted in their finding of judicial abuse.



Race & Bail Bibliography


Race & Pretrial Risk Assessment (Brief)


Testing for Racial Discrimination in Bail Setting Using Nonparametric Estimation of a Parametric Model


Prosecution And Racial Justice: Using Data to Advance Fairness in Criminal Prosecution - Vera Institute of Justice 2009


Give Us Free: Addressing Racial Disparities in Bail Determinations


Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force On Racial Bias In The Judicial System


Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate


Special thanks to Cynthia Jones, founder and former executive director of the Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative and Nancy Gist, former associate director of the Pretrial Racial Justice Initiative.

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