Innovations in Pretrial Justice: The View from Denver

At Reinvesting
in Justice
, Aubree Cote, smart pretrial site coordinator for Denver, talks about the city’s
reform efforts and what different states and jurisdictions can learn from each other regarding pretrial justice.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Hello and welcome to the New Thinking Podcast. This is Avni Majithia-Sejpal, and I am here in Dallas
today talking to Aubree Cote at the Reinvesting In Justice conference. Aubree is the Denver site coordinator for
the Bureau of Justice Assistance Smart Pretrial Demonstration Initiative. Welcome, Aubree.

COTE: Hi, thank you.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: You just participated in a panel that was very interesting.
For the benefit of our listeners at home, can you tell us what that panel was about and what you specifically were
talking about there?

COTE: Sure. The panel was around pretrial practices, and I was able to talk
about the Smart Pretrial, which is a demonstration initiative that Denver is participating in as one of three sites.
The other two sites are the state of Delaware and Yakima County, which is in Washington State. The Smart Pretrial
is a program that is allowing all three of those jurisdictions to look at front end processes within their criminal
justice systems. The work is divided in three different phases. Phase one of the grant is around planning, which
has really been about system analysis and looking at system processes, system mapping, gaps within our pretrial system,
and evaluating that so that we can, in phase two, implement some opportunities we may have to make improvements in
that system. The third phase, which would be the third year of the program, is sustainability. That’s where
hopefully the successful practices we put in place in phase two, we can sustain as well as working as a site for
other jurisdictions who may be looking at pretrial reform.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Speaking of Denver
and pretrial practices, what is the Smart Pretrial grant attempting to address?

COTE: Denver is
very fortunate in that we have a pretrial services program that has been around for a very long time. We started
doing some pretty significant pretrial reform work about 7 years ago in Denver. Some of that was around the implementation
of risk assessment. Colorado uses a risk assessment specific to a Colorado population. Denver implemented that in
2012. Additionally, in 2013, the bail statute in Colorado was essentially rewritten, which really changed how bail
was set. Smart Pretrial has really helped us to focus in on some of the changes that we’ve already made, and,
as a system, really look at what other opportunities that we have now that we know more about some of the changes
that were made a few years ago.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Can we break down what pretrial practices are?

COTE: Pretrial… The system itself is really the time where a defendant, between the time of arrest all
the way until disposition in a case. What we’ve found is that many defendants are in custody during that period,
and oftentimes are in custody held on a financial bail. If they’re not able to post that, they remain in custody
until disposition. Pretrial reform really looks at using risk assessment to determine whether those defendants should
be released or detained. Generally, most defendants are low-risk and can be released. Supervision practices can be
used for moderate risk-level defendants who, with some case management, specifically around appearance and not committing
new crimes, can be successful during that pretrial period.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Why is pretrial reform
so urgent today?

COTE: I think it’s interesting that there has been a concentration on looking
at the front end of the system that, 10 years ago, you didn’t hear much about. Most of nationally, jail populations,
or around 60% of the jail populations, are pretrial defendants. Obviously, that’s having a huge impact on those
that are in custody and haven’t even been found guilty and are not serving a sentence. A second piece to that
is that, historically, bail has been around financial means. I think in looking at jail, we’re seeing that,
oftentimes, defendants are buying their way out of custody, leaving poorer defendants to remain in custody.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Can you talk about some specific pretrial practices that help to reduce incarceration?

COTE: Yes. I would definitely go back to risk assessment. I think that has been very important in Denver,
and nationally also. I think changing the culture where judges and court personnel are making decisions based on
either detention or release, instead of a financial amount that they think may or may not ensure that the defendant
returns. Risk assessment has really helped us change how we look at a defendant that is arrested, and also the need
to be arrested. Is it necessary for a defendant to go into the jail, or can we somehow look at risk on the front
end and determine that they don’t even need to take up a jail bed day. We know the research is telling us that
defendants who are in custody even for 2 or 3 days can be very negatively impacted by that.

In Denver, what are some of the key causes of incarceration?

COTE: Denver is an interesting jurisdiction
because we are a city and a county. There are multiple layers within our system. We have municipal cases, which are
very low level ordinance nuisance type crimes, and then we have misdemeanors and we have felonies. Because of that,
we have a jail that has a variety of populations. What we’ve found is that, when we apply risk, it doesn’t
always correlate to charge type. In the past, felonies obviously would have higher financial bonds. We can’t
now assume that, just because they have a felony, that they’re higher or lower risk. That risk assessment has
really allowed us to look through a different lens to see who should be in our jail. Ideally, we would have a jail
that is high-risk defendants, and all of our low-risk, which would be most of them, are released, and the medium-risk
population is released with some type of pretrial supervision.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Are there any
strategies that you can share with us regarding implementing successful alternatives to pretrial detention without
compromising public safety?

COTE: I think that making decisions around supervision based on risk.
One of the things that we’re looking at in Denver is our pretrial supervision. We have several levels of pretrial
supervision. Our outcomes are very positive for defendants who are on that supervision. One of the things that we’d
really like to look more deeply into is specifically what type of supervision works well for different risk levels
of defendants. Right now, the research in the field doesn’t get very specific about what we know works with
certain levels of defendants. One of the things that we want to look at in Denver is really specifically what part
of our supervision is working well and for which defendants.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: I wanted to return
to your panel for a moment. Given a variety of stakeholders involved coming from different parts of the country,
I imagine it generated some interesting conversations and insights.

COTE: One of the benefits
of forums like this, where different jurisdictions are able to sit down and talk, is it’s always so interesting
that we all work in very different systems. However, there was definitely a conversation within that panel that there
is a large pretrial jail population, and what different jurisdictions can do. It’s interesting. The judge on
our panel from New York statutorily has different limitations than we may have in Colorado. Yet, they are instituting
a program around pretrial release. That’s very similar to what we’re doing in Colorado and is being done
in other states. I think that part is always very beneficial.

MAJITHIA-SEJPAL: Thanks so much
for talking to me. That was an instructive conversation. I’m Avni Majithia-Sejpal, and I have been talking to
Aubree Cote at Reinvesting In Justice. To listen to more New Thinking Podcasts, or to learn more about our work,
you can visit our website at Thanks so much for listening.