U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

State of the Science of Pretrial Risk Assessment

NCJ Number
Cynthia A. Mamalian, Ph.D.
Date Published
March 2011
42 pages
This report summarizes the key points derived from a meeting of researchers and practitioners who met to discuss the current state of the science and practice of pretrial justice.
The meeting addressed "significant next steps" in advancing the administration of pretrial justice, how to ensure efficient and effective release/detention decisions for pretrial defendants, the management of defendant risk through appropriate and specific conditions of release, and ways of balancing the rights of defendants with community safety. The report's first section presents a brief review of the history and current state of pretrial justice. The second section identifies and discusses critical issues in pretrial release, detention, and risk assessment. The third section considers challenges in implementing evidence-based risk assessment and threats to reliable administration; the latter include time constraints, the practicality of using a risk-assessment instrument, money bail schedules, local capacity, subjective risk assessment, court culture, and judicial behavior. The report's fourth section addresses methodological challenges related to the prediction of risk. The concluding section outlines the goals of the pretrial period and offers recommendations for research and practice. The goals of pretrial justice are to improve adherence to constitutional, statutory, and case law; increase the number of individuals objectively and thoroughly assessed; to reduce unnecessary pretrial detention while maintaining public safety and the integrity of the judicial process; and to save money through the more effective use of jail beds. Objective assessment should ensure that low-risk defendants are released on their own recognizance, that moderate-risk defendants are released with nonfinancial conditions and are appropriately managed in the community by trained and resourced supervision staff, and that defendants objectively assessed as being a danger to the community are detained after a due process hearing. Recommendations for research and practice suggest future directions. 3 notes