Study: Policies, not ‘bad apples,’ are behind racial disparities in jail

May 10, 2023

Long-standing policies and deeply rooted inequity — rather than a few “bad apples” in the criminal justice system — likely explain why Black defendants in certain parts of the country are more likely than others to be held in jail before trial, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley. 

But a relatively easy fix could be a key to undoing those racial disparities in pretrial detention.

“We rely on pretrial detention much too often, and there are huge human and fiscal costs,” said Jennifer Skeem, a professor of public policy and social welfare at UC Berkeley.

A pair of recently published papers suggest that an overreliance on a defendant’s criminal history has inflated the number of people sitting behind bars while their cases grind through the courts. Confronting the outsized role of such details in pretrial reports and improving how these reports are written could help identify who actually needs to remain in jail before trial and who can be safely released, said Skeem, a psychologist and lead author of the two new papers.

Berkeley News