Pretrial Services & Monitoring

Since the 1970s, the institution of pretrial services programs has been a significant component of the bail reform movement. As jurisdictions moved away from financial release decisions based on the crimes charged toward considerations of the risks and needs posed by individual defendants (see Pretrial Release topics), they recognized that more standardized processes could better inform release decisions. Pretrial services programs perform this critical function, as well as other key roles in mitigating pretrial misconduct and supporting court appearance.

The most recent survey of pretrial services agencies in 2009 identified over 300 jurisdictions with pretrial services programs, but that number has grown along with the movement for pretrial justice reform. From 2012 to 2014, six states enacted legislation to authorize or establish statewide pretrial services programs (Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont and West Virginia). Across and within states, responsibility for administering pretrial services varies widely. Within the criminal justice system, pretrial services may be under the court, the jail, or probation. In some jurisdictions, pretrial services are administered by an independent agency or a nonprofit organization. Kentucky has led the way in instituting and managing a statewide court-based pretrial services program, and the District of Columbia’s Pretrial Services Agency is a mature and innovative independent agency.

Pretrial Services Functions

The American Bar Association describes the role of pretrial services agencies in their Standards for Criminal Justice: Pretrial Release publication (see Standard 10-1.10):

  • conduct pre-first appearance inquiries;
  • present accurate information to the judicial officer relating to the risk defendants may pose of failing to appear in court or of threatening the safety of the community or any other person and, consistent with court policy, develop release recommendations responding to risk;
  • develop and provide appropriate and effective supervision for all person released pending adjudication who are assigned supervision as a condition of release;
  • develop clear policy to operate and manage a range of release options sufficient to respond to the risks associated with released defendants in coordination with existing court, corrections, and community resources;
  • monitor the compliance of released defendants with the requirements of assigned release conditions and develop relationships with alternative programs such as drug and domestic violence courts or mental health support systems;
  • promptly inform the court of all apparent violations of pretrial release conditions or arrests of persons released pending trial, including those directly supervised by pretrial services as well as those released under other forms of conditional release;
  • supervise and coordinate the services of other agencies, individuals, or organizations that serve as custodians for released defendants, and advise the court as to their appropriateness, availability, reliability and capacity;
  • review the status of detained defendants on an ongoing basis for any changes in eligibility for release options and facilitate their release as soon as feasible and appropriate;
  • develop and operate an accurate information management system to support the functions essential to an effective pretrial services agency;
  • assist persons released prior to trial in securing treatment and supports that would increase the chances of successful compliance with conditions of pretrial release;
  • remind persons released before trial of their court dates and assist them in attending court; and
  • have the means to assist persons who cannot communicate in written or spoken English.

Supervision and monitoring of defendants released during the pretrial period is a key function of pretrial services. In performing this essential function, pretrial services programs should apply the same risk principle that underlies pretrial release decisions. Research indicates that supervision conditions should be tailored to the individual defendant’s risk and needs related to public safety and appearance for court proceedings. Court date reminders have been shown to be an effective method to improve appearance rates for all defendants. Other common supervision conditions include regular check-ins with a pretrial case manager, drug and alcohol testing, and electronic monitoring.