The Impact of Pretrial Detention

While jail is intended as a punitive measure, the majority of the jail population consists of unsentenced individuals who are awaiting trial. For instance, in Santa Clara County, over seventy percent of the jail population consists of unsentenced individuals. This is not unique to Santa Clara, as across California more than sixty two percent of inmates in jail are either awaiting trial or have yet to be sentenced. These numbers are troubling considering the presumption of innocence that pretrial individuals are said to have. As the Supreme Court stated in Coffin v. United States, “the principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” So, why are so many, presumably innocent, people sitting in jail? The answer is the current bail system. About 500,000 thousand people in this country, many of whom are charged with petty misdemeanors, are forced to remain in county jails simply because they cannot afford bail. The time spent in jail awaiting trial has a detrimental impact on the individual. The Supreme Court of the United States has even recognized the impact of pretrial detention. In Barker v. Wingo, the Court acknowledged that, “[i]t often means loss of a job; it disrupts family life; and it enforces idleness…Imposing those consequences on anyone who has not yet been convicted is serious. It is especially unfortunate to impose them on those persons who are ultimately found to be innocent.”

My name is Hunter Burnette and I am a second year law student at the Santa Clara University School of Law. I will be writing about the impact of excessive pretrial detention, specifically focusing on the personal, social, and economic effect that pretrial detention has on individuals and their families. During my time as an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University, I specialized, in part, in corrections and social control and saw firsthand the severe and lasting effects of pretrial detention. With this blog I hope to effectuate awareness and change, not just on a case-by-case basis, but on an institutional level. The decision to detain a person who has not been convicted is a draconian one, and carries enormous consequences not only for the defendant, but also for the safety of the community.