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April 17, 2021

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Yakima County’s new pretrial release program seeing success

By , Columbian environment and transportation reporter
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A few years ago, an examination of the Yakima County Jail showed more than 60 percent of its inmates were awaiting trial. Officials started looking at how to reduce that percentage.

In 2013, the Eastern Washington county was chosen as a site to test a Justice Department-affiliated initiative to reduce the number of people in its jail who had not yet been convicted. So far the results seem promising.

Under the old system, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Richard Bartheld explained, he’d typically see those arrested in a first appearance the next “judicial day” after they’d been arrested. At that hearing, the arrested parties would appear on their own and answer some basic questions. Only rarely would they have an attorney.

Then, usually based on little more than their answers, the prosecutor’s statements and what was in the preliminary police report, Bartheld would make a call on whether to release the defendant, set bail, or jail him.

“One of my concerns as a judge in Yakima County was I wasn’t getting good information to make informed decisions on release decisions,” Bartheld said.

“I was getting release recommendations based on recommendations from a prosecutor.”

So the county rescheduled first appearance hearings for suspects, giving them their own dedicated time on the docket rather than treating cases like an assembly line. That gave the lawyers assigned to suspects before first appearances, another new feature, time to work with clients.

Now judges don’t just hear from the police and prosecutors when they consider pretrial release. “We have an adversarial hearing, so that both sides present their evidence so the court can make an informed decision,” Bartheld said.

The new arrangement also gives time for the county’s new pretrial supervision officers to interview and assess suspects and make a release recommendation.

The pretrial assessment program is a kind of actuarial tool built on statistical characteristics, explained Jennifer Wilcox, the administrative supervisor for Yakima County’s pretrial release program.

It takes into account an arrestee’s age, the nature of the suspected crime, previous felony or misdemeanor convictions, previous instances of failing to appear for court dates or any other pending charges, and gives them all weight. The results help predict whether a defendant would be a good candidate for release, and under what conditions.

On any given day, the three employees at Wilcox’s office are supervising about 460 people.

“There’s no expectation the assessment is going to be followed to the letter, and quite often it isn’t,” she said.

County staff assign defendants differing levels of supervision requirements, ranging from regular call-ins to visits to the office.

“We do see people more often if they’re homeless, mentally ill, don’t have a phone. There’s some folks that we just need to see more often because we just can’t reach them,” Wilcox said.

They release about 50 percent of the people they assess, she said.

“The big point for us is that we’re releasing 20 percent more people with no increase in failure to appear or recidivism rates,” she said. “Is it working? I’d say yes.”

Since revamping its pretrial release programs, Yakima County also has a lot more data to work with, she said.

“We have more data than any pretrial agency I’ve talked to nationwide,” Wilcox said.

When Yakima implemented its new pretrial system, it also found:

• There was no significant change in subsequent court attendance.

• There was more parity in who was being released ahead of trial along racial and ethnic lines.

• Defendants posted bond sooner.

Bartheld said there are about 60 more beds available in the jail thanks to the pretrial program. Because of how the jail is staffed and funded, the ultimate savings have largely been a wash. However, the reduction in stress on the jail system, a jail chief told him, was “priceless.”

More people, many shocked to learn their local jail’s pretrial booking rates are as high as 60 or 70 percent, are getting interested in pretrial reform, he said.

“They’re finding there’s been a shift in looking at the issue of bail, and what does bail really do to guarantee a person is not going to commit new crimes, and is going to show up for trial, is going to show up for court hearings,” the judge said. “We found it doesn’t do a whole lot.”

Columbian environment and transportation reporter
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