The release rate for defendants before their trials is higher in the District of Columbia than in any other major American city and the over-whelming number of those defendants can be trusted to come back to court, according to a major new federal study released yesterday.
Now, more than a decade after the bail reform movement began here, the study suggests that legislators and the courts shift their concern to reducing the number of defendants who are rearrested for crimes while on release.
"The jump rate is probably tolerable," said Assistant Attorney General Patricia M. Wald of the number of defendants who fail to return to court after release.
"We are left, however, with a rate of recurring crime committed during pretrial release that is probably intolerable from most citizens' point of view," Wald, one of the early architects of the nationwide bail reform movement, said in a preface to the study.
Conducted for the federal Law Enfororcement Assistance Administration by the Washington-based Institute for Law and Social Research, the study is based on 11,000 felony and serious misdemeanor cases brought to the D.C. Superior Court in 1974.
The study challenges the fundamental criteria that judges use when they decide who should be released from custody and proposes other factors that the researchers said could better predict which defendants would pose a danger to the community upon release.
"We estimate that we are jailing a lot of people who are good risks because the criteria on who gets out and who goes to jail are largely irrelevent," said William A. Hamilton, the president of INSLAW.
"We think we could reduce the pretrial jail population by 20 percent with no increase in non-appearance or crime on bail" if the judges were permitted under the District's bail laws to consider various factors which the study contends are directly related to crime on bail, Hamilton said.
For example, in felony cases, the study said drug users presented a high risk of nohappearance in court or of rearrest, yet they were no more likely than other defendants to be detained on a money bond.
Moreover, although persons charged with robbery, burglary, larceny or property destruction seem more likely to be rearrested before trial, those factors do not now influence a judge's release decision.
The study found that 62 percent of the defendants accused of felonies and 80 percent of those accused of misdemeanor offenses were released by the court after their arrest.
Close to 11 percent of the felony defendants who were released failed to appear in court for at least one scheduled hearing, but only four percent of those defendants deliberately avoided coming to court, the study said. Many of the defendants who failed to appear did so because of some breakdown in communication with the court, the study said.
The study also found that 13 percent of felony defendants on release and 7 percent of those charged with serious misdemeanors were rearrested before trial.
Under current law, a preventive detention hearing can be held at the prosecutor's request to determine if a defendant is a danger to the community and should be held without bond. The study found, however, that preventive detention was requested in only one case in 1974.
The decision on which defendants will be released before trial is made by the Superior Court judge who is assigned to preside in what is known as "Arraignment Court," the defendant's first stop in the criminal justice system after arrest.
Under the terms of the Bail Reform Act of 1966, judges are expected to release defendants on their personal recognizance unless they feel that a money bond is needed to ensure that the defendant will show up for the next scheduled court date.
The judges make those decisions based on information about the defendants' "community ties," such as family, local address and employment and other factors collected by the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency.
The federal study found, however, that defendants with local addresses were no more reliable than out-of-town defendants when it came to making their next appearance in court.
Moreover, the study said, the fact that a defendant is likely to be convicted or face a stiff prison term does not encourage failure to appear in court. In addition, a high money bond does not guarantee that a defendant will appear in court, the study said.
Defendants charged with assault, sexual assault or weapons offenses were somewhat more likely to appear in court when scheduled than are other defendants, the study found.
The study also concluded that employed defendants are a better risk for release than those who are unemployed and drug users are less reliable than nonusers.
One significant finding was that persons who are released to the supervision of a third-party custodian group are more likely than other defendants to fail to appear or to be rearrested while on release. The principal third party custodian at the Superior Court at the time the study was conducted was Bonabond, Inc.
Third party supervision is considered a middle ground between personal recognizance and incarceration prior to trial. One reason for the higher rearrest rate might be the fact that the third party custodian groups supervise more serious offenders, the study said.