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Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson of the Office of Justice Programs Speaks at the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you so much, Jim, and I’m thrilled to be here.

I want to echo Jim and Tim in welcoming everyone here, and to tell you how excited I am about this symposium. This is the second time the Department of Justice has convened a dialogue on the important issue of pretrial justice. The first time was almost 50 years ago – back in 1964 under then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

I’m so pleased that the Justice Department is renewing its commitment to this issue. This is something in which I know Eric Holder has a strong personal interest, going back to his days on the bench and as a prosecutor. You’ll hear from him tomorrow, and you’ll hear from several other top Justice officials, as well, including Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole; Assistant Attorney General for Legislation, Ron Weich; and the U.S. Attorney for D.C., Ron Machen.

And I also want to extend a warm welcome to Congressman Pierluisi who has joined us this afternoon. Thank you, Congressman, for being here today and for your commitment to this work. We’re very glad to have you with us.

I’m really proud to be part of this event, too. I’ve been interested in the issues surrounding pretrial justice since my days at the American Bar Association in the 70s and 80s. And I have a particular personal interest in this symposium because my husband, Sheldon Krantz, who many of you know, worked under Bobby Kennedy at Justice – so I feel a special sense of connection to the issues we’re addressing here.

Let me, first of all, thank the staff of the Pretrial Justice Institute – and my own staff in the Office of Justice Programs – for their tremendous work in organizing this symposium – and for their leadership, every day, on these critical issues.

I also want to pay tribute to three critical figures – three important links to the original work done back then on bail reform: Herb Sturz, Pat Wald, and the late Dan Freed, all of whom were central players in the first National Conference on Bail and Criminal Justice. Dan and Herb were co-directors of the conference effort, and Judge Wald was one of the staff. And as a personal comment, I consider all three mentors.

Herb and Judge Wald are with us. I’d like to thank them for being here and for their unparalleled pioneering work in this area. And over these two days, I have a feeling Dan’s spirit will be here with us, as well.

I think it’s fair to call today’s symposium “historic.” The 1964 conference that Herb, Pat, and Dan helped to make possible shined a light on many of the frailties of the system at the time and helped spur some of the positive changes we’ve seen over the last five decades.

And we’re taking our cue from that conference. Our goal here today and tomorrow is to push the issue of pretrial justice back out into the open.

Each of you has been invited because of your experience, your expertise, and your influence within your constituencies. What we have in this room today is a gathering of many of the most influential criminal justice stakeholders in the nation – I actually thought it was just a gathering of my best friends in this field – and we’re going to really try to leverage that influence.

Just like the first conference, this is a working symposium. We’ll begin by setting the context with plenaries covering the origin of reform, the current state of affairs, evidence-based approaches, and success stories. Then we’re going to ask you to really roll up your sleeves and work on drafting realistic and workable recommendations for every stakeholder represented here. Our goal, of course, is to determine how we can move the field closer to safe, effective, and fair pretrial justice systems.

As we all know, pretrial justice encompasses several decision points and involves many players. The decision by a police officer to issue a summons or citation in lieu of arrest is part of pretrial justice. The screening of arrestees to measure their risk of flight or re-offending is part of pretrial justice. The early screening of arrest charges by experienced prosecutors and the appointment of defense counsel prior to the defendant’s first appearance in court are part of pretrial justice.

But our primary focus will be on the decision to release or detain prior to trial. It’s this decision that’s so important in terms of public safety, fairness, and cost. Fortunately, unlike our predecessors under Bobby Kennedy, we now have evidence-based tools to help accurately measure pretrial risk and prescribe effective and accountable responses. This means that pretrial justice practices – like other areas of criminal justice – can be established on a foundation of solid and reliable evidence.

The Office of Justice Programs is not alone in its interest in seeing pretrial justice move towards more fair, effective, and evidence-based outcomes. Within just the past year, a number of organizations have publicly highlighted the need to reform our often antiquated and sometimes dangerous pretrial practices and replace them with empirically supported, risk-based decision-making.

Here’s the short list – the National Association of Counties, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the American Jail Association, the American Council of Chief Defenders, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American Association of Probation and Parole, the Vera Institute, the Public Welfare Foundation, and – as you will hear from Mr. Robinson – the American Bar Association.

So, why all the attention on pretrial justice – and why now?

Data from our Bureau of Justice Statistics show that more people are in our nation’s jails because they’re unable to post bond – even a small bond – than for any other reason. And in spite of declining crime rates, the rate of pretrial detention has actually increased over the last few decades.

One huge consequence of this is that pretrial detention comes at enormous fiscal costs to already strapped local governments – and it has profound social costs to our communities. It doesn’t have to be this way, because research suggests that many of those who are detained could be safely released.

I’ll tell you – I’m proud of the role the Office of Justice Programs has played – and continues to play – in the Administration’s efforts to improve pretrial justice, with Jim’s staff in BJA leading the way. Working with groups like NACo, IACP, APPA, NAPSA, and the Vera Institute – which was a driving force behind the 1964 conference – we’ve produced guides for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and corrections officials, and elected leaders on expanding and improving pretrial services.

BJA also worked with the National Institute of Justice to convene a focus group this past winter of leading researchers and practitioners to examine how evidence-based risk assessment can be used as an effective tool not only for pretrial services programs, but for judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel, as well. This emphasis on risk assessment is something I feel very strongly about – and I think it will be key to advancing the pretrial services field to the next stage of effectiveness.

And I just want to again acknowledge our friends at the Pretrial Justice Institute for their partnership in all of this. It’s primarily the work they’ve done – with support from BJA – that has rekindled our collective focus on these issues.

So, we have a firm base of experience and knowledge to build on, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do. The task ahead is no less challenging today than it was in 1964 – and surely no less important. But we’re armed with enlightened data-driven practices and – certainly as evidenced by your presence here today – a renewed commitment to these issues. This is encouraging, and I am optimistic that, working together, our shared vision of safe, effective pretrial justice for all can at long last become reality.

So thank you for being here, and thank you for your commitment to justice in America.

Updated September 17, 2014