More than half of the 600 pretrial inmates in San Mateo County, California, are in jail because they can’t find the money for bail. The county spends $206 per day, or $75,000 per year, housing these inmates.
Because of this price tag, in July the county’s civil grand jury, an independent investigative group, asked the San Mateo Board of Supervisors to direct the Probation Department to evaluate and recommend alternatives to pretrial incarceration, including evidence-based risk-assessment tools and electronic monitoring.
Stuck in jail
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report, “Innocent Until Proven Guilty? Bail Practices in San Mateo County,” cites three problems with the current U.S. bail system:
- A substantial number of defendants are held in jail because they cannot afford bail
- Dangerous criminals are sometimes released on bail because they can afford it
- Costs to jail pretrial defendants are high
The report suggests that alcohol and location monitoring can help address both costs and community safety. In San Mateo, releasing pretrial defendants and supervising them with electronic monitoring (EM) could cut costs by over 87%—from $206 per day to $26 per day per person. The report further states, “EM can also be used to reduce risk to the community for defendants released on bail.” For example, “There are EM devices that can detect a person’s alcohol level. Use of such a device for people accused of drunk driving could act as a deterrent to a repeat offense.”
San Mateo’s recommendation for more pretrial electronic monitoring follows a national trend. In 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that over 60% of jail inmates were unconvicted, at a cost of $9 billion annually. The BJS noted, “Across the United States, counties are evaluating their bail practices and deploying technological tools for use in their pretrial justice systems to better address the inconsistencies in cash bail policies.”
Concern goes beyond cost though. Studies have shown that people incarcerated before trial are more likely to be convicted or receive longer sentences. Evidence-based risk-assessment tools and EM can save money and be less disruptive for the accused during the pretrial stage. According to the National Institute of Justice, “EM reduces the likelihood of failure under community supervision. The reduction in the risk of failure is about 31%, relative to offenders not placed on EM.”