UTD Criminologist's Pre-Trial Release Study Could Help Trim the Fat of a Bulky System

According to a New York Times piece published earlier this week, the population behind bars has more than doubled in the past 15 years. Best guess at present: 2.3 million Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving in the clink. And Robert Morris, a criminology professor at University of Texas at Dallas, wants to lighten that load.

He's beginning research that could potentially come up with ways to trim the prison population around the edges, saving taxpayers millions without putting them at higher risk. He's collecting pre-trial release data and arrest records from Dallas County in the hopes of determining what about the system works and what doesn't, with an emphasis on public safety, spending and court appearance rates.

"Basically, let's find out which release mechanisms are better at reducing recidivism, which are better at reducing failures to appear, all those things have to do with how the system operates ... and who is at the jail at any given time," Morris tells Unfair Park. "It is pretty interesting simply for the fact that there are so many resources thrown at the jail system, the criminal justice system and the release mechanisms that people exit the jail through."

The term "release mechanisms" encompasses a variety of options, including release on recognizance (when a person who is not a flight risk gives their word that they will appear in court at a specific time), diversion programs (used as alternatives to criminal charges) or bail bonds (which have made headlines quite a bit recently).

But "there's really not very much research out there that looks at all of the release mechanisms," Morris says. He approached the Dallas County Criminal Advisory Board with his proposal to gain both approval and assistance obtaining volumes of data dating back to 2008. What data is he digging through? And for what?

Here, he explains:

"It'll be all information, starting with 2008 through 2011, every person who's ever gone to the Dallas County Jail. So I need to know what day they came in on, what they came in for, a bunch of demographic information, and I need to know when they were released, and how they were released -- through what mechanism. So that will be the key focus variable," Morris says.

"Then I need arrest information for every person arrested for the same dates so I can basically say, 'OK, these people were incarcerated for this amount of time, and they were let out.' And I'll have the arrest information to see, were they arrested after that in Dallas County. ... I need to have time-ordered data, and have a good level of confidence as far as does one release mechanism work better at reducing recidivism and failure to appear.

"A sizable portion of people ... are bond-eligible, but they don't meet that threshold to get release on their own recognizance, and they don't qualify for some diversion program, so they just sit in jail awaiting trial. ... What about the people who are just sitting in jail for the simple fact that a judge hasn't put them under some special program and they can't afford to buy themselves out through security bond? If you can get those people out of jail, that's a big deal. And just them, or some of them, would make a sizable impact."

"They not only save money for the taxpayer by not being in jail, but then they go out, and a lot of them will have jobs, they'll be paying taxes. They'll hopefully be able to spend time with their families."

Morris hopes to release a report of his first round of findings this spring, then with follow-up with more nuanced answers a year from now. He hopes his work will be a jumping-off point for other cities.

With 6,000 to 7,000 inmates in Dallas County on any given day, each costing $57, Morris estimates that even a small decrease could mean huge savings. "If we can say, 'Here's a group of people who maybe doesn't need to be in jail,' well, for each day, that's $57, and it just goes on and on and on," he says. "Dallas County is already a huge justice entity, and they're busting at the seams. Not everyone in jail is a monster."

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