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Report Urges Reforms To Address Racial Disparities In Mass. Pretrial Detainees

(Jesse Costa/WBUR/File)MoreCloseclosemore
(Jesse Costa/WBUR/File)

Counties across Massachusetts have large racial disparities in the composition of defendants who are awaiting trial in jail, a report finds.

In Barnstable County, on Cape Cod, African-American residents make up just 2.4 percent of the population, but nearly 25 percent of all pretrial detainees, according to the policy brief by the think tank MassINC, which has advocated for criminal justice reforms in Massachusetts, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

In Franklin County, in western Massachusetts, the report finds "the proportion of black detainees is nine times higher than the share of black residents in the general population." The MassINC analysis uses data from county sheriffs and the 2010 U.S. Census estimates.

All other counties have smaller ratios, but in Suffolk County, for instance, the black pretrial detainee-to-black resident ratio is still 2 to 1.

Click to enlarge. (Courtesy MassINC)
Click to enlarge. (Courtesy MassINC)

The study also finds racial and ethnic disparities in the amount of bail pretrial detainees are asked to post. In the aforementioned Barnstable County, for example, MassINC calculated the median bail amount is $20,000 for black defendants, versus just $5,000 for white defendants.

"These stark racial and ethnic differences indicate a problem," report co-author Ben Forman said in a statement accompanying the study. "Placing defendants in jail to await trial sets off a chain reaction. Once you're locked up, you become much more likely to spiral deeper into the criminal justice system. So disparate treatment at this early stage can compound, contributing to wide racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration rates."

The policy brief comes amid a broader conversation in Massachusetts on criminal justice reforms, and nationwide scrutiny of the cash bail system.

As the MassINC report states, "research has shown ...  that more low-income and minority defendants are forced to await trial in jail because they cannot post the money required for their release."

In response, MassINC, in the policy brief, calls for "dramatically" reducing the use of cash bail in the state, and is advocating to make the detainee process more data-informed, citing "studies [that] have consistently found that racial and ethnic biases influence pretrial bail decisions."

To counter any biases in pretrial decisions, the brief urges the use of a validated risk assessment tool, which MassINC describes as "a battery of questions used to determine the probability that a defendant will return for trial based on the patterns of others with a similar profile."

The risk assessment concept has seen some movement in Massachusetts.

In its latest budget, the Legislature provided the Probation Department funds to pilot such a tool and pending legislation, cited by the MassINC authors, would require a risk assessment tool's development and use throughout the state court system.

The authors also argue that "jails aren't being used effectively," as the MassINC statement says, and that a more data-informed pretrial process could result in state savings. For example: Between 2008 and 2013, the report finds, the number of arrests in Massachusetts fell by 10 percent, but the state’s pretrial jail population rose by nearly 13 percent.

Benjamin Swasey Twitter Digital Manager
Ben is WBUR's digital manager. He occasionally reports about economic and transportation policy, social issues and politics.

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