Penn study finds those jailed before trial more likely to commit new crimes

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

While 60 percent of the people sitting in Philadelphia’s jails are simply waiting for their day in court, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania found those incarcerated before their trial are more likely to commit crimes in the future.

Paul Heaton and his fellow researchers at Penn Law looked at about 400,000 cases in Harris County, Texas, where people had committed low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as disorderly conduct and possessing small amounts of marijuana.

They found things got worse for the people who could not afford to pay bail and were sent to jail before their trials.

The group was 23 percent more likely to commit another misdemeanor and 30 percent more likely to commit a more serious felony within 18 months of leaving jail. 

“That process of just being detained, even for a short period of time, is just disruptive enough for their life,” said Heaton, academic director of Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. “It can affect their relationship with family members, with employers. That can be the beginning where your life just kind of spirals off the tracks.”

The study also found those kept in jail pretrial were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty, whether they had committed the crime or not. 

Heaton said his study is good news for cities including Philadelphia that are working to reform their bail systems and keep those accused of minor offenses out of jail.

In April, Philadelphia won a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help cut the population in its overcrowded jails by more than one-third. The grant will help fund a sweeping set of reforms, including alternatives to cash bail such as ankle monitoring. Another proposal being discussed by a City Council committee is to create day-reporting centers where defendants can check in before their court dates. 

“If done intelligently, something like bail reform can be one of those rare public policies where you actually are able to save taxpayers money because you’re not holding people in jail for so long, but you can actually enhance public safety,” Heaton said.


This story has been updated to clarify that the MacArthur Grant will not fund day-reporting centers, but is another proposal being discussed. 

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