Reimagining a Just Pretrial Process Together
Marci Exsted (she/her) is a Research Assistant at the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC)
A lot of my personal story revolves around the importance of being heard and building trust and care intentionally. Clashes of mental health and trauma in my family made this even more real for me. Over the years, through my background in Social Work and mentorship from many Black and Brown community leaders, I got clear on whose voices are intentionally not centered in our society.
As I began to bump up against the limits of what I thought possible within Social Work, I was introduced to the world of research and, specifically, the kind of research that doesn’t just pull information from people and leave them behind. Now, any work I engage in demands that community voices are at the center. No work should be done without the people it’s about and for.
The Reimagining Bail project at the MNJRC brought this community-driven approach to the issue of pretrial detention and release and cash bail. The project focused on Hennepin County, with an eye toward Minnesota as a whole. I began as a Research Assistant on this project in April 2022. Over the last year and a half, I supported outreach to participants, conducted interviews, co-wrote our findings, and led the effort to share our findings with the community.
Cash bail and the pretrial process (the time between a booking in jail and resolution of a criminal case) are complicated aspects of our legal system, and their impact on people who encounter them is just as complex and wide-reaching. Our team set out to better understand this process and people’s lived experiences with it. In order to do this, we began by reaching out to system actors, such as prosecutors, judges, and public defenders. These interviews enabled us to flesh out the pretrial process itself, helping us understand how a case moves through the system and how to view the process from multiple angles.
We then conducted outreach to community members who have encountered cash bail, whether by paying someone else’s bail and/or having bail set for themselves. Part of the outreach process included going to where people are, including holding interviews at community organizations serving individuals dealing with homelessness and substance use. In total, we interviewed 14 system actors and 44 community members, all of whom shared not only the technical details of the process but also the real, messy impact that this process can often have. The stories from people who have gone through the pretrial process shape our findings in the report we published, found here.
Just as we wrapped up our report and prepared to share it out, the MNJRC hosted a community data walk event - “MNJRC's Pretrial Report Findings: “I'm Suffering Along With Her”. The event was held at the Powderhorn Recreation Center in south Minneapolis on September 7th, 2023. The event was a way to educate community members about the pretrial process, discuss what resonated (or didn’t) from our report findings, and collectively start to reimagine the pretrial process in Minnesota. Check out our youtube page for a short video highlighting the event. This video provides a glimpse into the event, including showing the space with posters of our data on the wall, all of our presenters (including our Executive Director, Justin Terrell), and a powerful clip from the closing community discussion.
Our event began with presentations (full-length video of presentations forthcoming!) from Anna Hall, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Legal Rights Center, and Dr. Joshua Page, Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, who covered the basics of bail and the pretrial process, how to distinguish bail bonds from cash bail, and the harms of the for-profit bail bond industry. Brie Watters (PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota), one of the members of the Reimagining Bail research team, then bravely shared her own harrowing story of paying bail for a previous romantic partner and how this experience continues to follow her today.
After all the presentations, I provided a brief overview of our team’s work over the last year and a half, including a summary of our report, a video tool we created to summarize the wide-reaching consequences of the pretrial process, and opened the floor for questions. Many questions were raised about the report itself and also about the complexities of reimagining pretrial in Minnesota - highlighting the importance of ongoing collective action.
(Anna Hall presenting at the event)
After the presentations, we invited attendees to get up and walk around the room to engage with excerpts of our data - what we refer to as a “data walk”. The data walk, facilitated by MNJRC’s Kayla Richards, included six posters across the room containing the data from our report. We encourage folks to recognize the vastness of data. Data can be stories, experiences, numbers, and charts. Five of the posters contained quotes taken directly from community interviews. The sixth poster had graphs showing pretrial detention and length of stay data from Hennepin County.
The quotes on the posters reflected the three sections of our report - taking us through the same thematic journey from the ways that pretrial is dehumanizing, to how cash bail puts entire communities on the hook financially and has wide-reaching consequences, to the question of whether cash bail actually encourages people to appear in court.
The “walk” part of the data walk involved attendees interacting with the data. By placing a colored dot, each attendee could indicate agreement, neutrality, or disagreement with what they read. We also provided sticky notes for attendees to write down their thoughts. Each poster included reflection prompts on the bottom that community members could respond to.
The space was quiet at first, as we all took a moment to process what had been said and connect that with the stories from people who have encountered cash bail. After a while, conversations began to flow as people moved between the posters, interacting with them and one another.
What did we learn?
Looking at the feedback from the community, there was a large amount of resonance overall. In many ways, community personally connected with the quotes, which was clear from their responses. There was also a consistent wrestling with the harms of pretrial and how the system feels broken and even deliberately harmful.
Many people reflected on how many barriers get in the way of people’s success. This included a reflection on physical barriers to get to court and financial barriers to pay bail. As one attendee put it, “[Money] can't be a motivator if you can't afford your chance to be motivated by it.”
Many of the post-its reflected a similar perspective that money in the pretrial process creates further harm, paralleling our report findings. The one red dot landed on a quote that was more nuanced in the way it expressed a gratitude for cash bail to get their loved one out but also demonstrated that this doesn’t guarantee court appearance. Written responses to this poster worked to understand why the released loved one missed court and questioned what ‘accountability’ looks like when it lands on family/partners before a verdict has been reached.
The poster with the most green dots of agreement had the quote,
“I mean their mission, I believe, is to make [jail] the most awful experience ever so that you maybe won’t want to go back. But treating people the way that they treat you doesn’t... I don’t think the outcome is, “I don’t ever want to go back.” I think the outcome is, “I’m not a good person.” And I think that’s really detrimental to one’s soul.”
Community responses really focused on the damage of pretrial detention. This echoed the panic that people interviewed for our report described feeling when trying to get their loved ones out of jail.
There was so much empathy in the responses, including reflections compelling fellow readers to put themselves in the shoes of the people experiencing these situations. One post-it responding to the average detention stay during pretrial asked, “What would be destroyed in your life if you couldn't participate in your life for 9 days?” [Emphasis added]. Nine days was the average length of stay for people pretrial in Hennepin County.
The one poster that had more neutral (yellow) dots than positive (green) had a quote from a mother struggling with whether or not to put up bail for her daughter who was struggling with addiction. When looking at the written responses it was clear that the ‘neutral’ response was not from indifference or a lack of resonance, as comments did not agree with jail as a ‘better’ place but they also did not appear to blame the mom for this conclusion. Community understood where the mother was coming from but did not connect as much with her perspective itself as they saw the larger picture of a mother forced to make an “impossible choice”. One person said that they felt this particular quote demonstrates how “this system directly encourages abandonment” and another pointed out how it “punishes poverty” because of the mom’s limited access to resources.
We were brought back together for a discussion to wrap up our thoughts. Kayla asked questions of the group to gather what we will take away from this experience. Community in the space reflected on the data, pointing out these people held in pretrial are just missing from their communities - whole blocks of loved ones. Others shared about how we can reimagine the pretrial space together, looking to the complexities and barriers ahead. Passion was a throughline, as attendees referred to the quotes and shared their own perspectives. Our Executive Director, Justin Terrell, closed us out with a call to continue working together toward a more just pretrial space and criminal legal space in general for Minnesota.
As we wrapped up the event and began putting things away, I felt a mix of emotions. I am deeply proud of the work that has been done for this report and the fact that people directly impacted by this issue are getting their stories heard. I also felt hopeful, acknowledging that this report is just the beginning of the work. I feel hopeful seeing that despite the challenges, this is not work we are doing alone.
Community should be at the forefront of our collective efforts if we are ever going to manifest community values of justice, fairness, and safety in and beyond the pretrial space. For all those missing from our communities, for their loved ones, for the wide-reaching harms that reverberate out, we are in this work together.
The Minnesota Justice Research Center has just begun a project, funded by the state legislature, to reimagine the pretrial process in Minnesota. The MNJRC will be conducting a robust study of pretrial release practices in Minnesota and elsewhere to identify best practices for pretrial release; analyze if, and how, practices in other jurisdictions could be adopted and implemented in Minnesota; address how changes would impact public safety, appearance rates, treatment of defendants with different financial means, disparities in pretrial detention, and community perspectives about pretrial release; and make recommendations for policy changes for consideration by the legislature. This work will expand on what we started through our report, so join us and learn more at mnjrc.org.
Prison Policy Initiative: Pretrial Detention: Exploring cost and outcome of detaining people before trial or deportation: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/pretrial_detention/
Prison Policy Initiative: Releasing people pretrial doesn’t harm public safety:
Prison Policy Initiative: All profit, no risk: How the bail industry exploits the legal system: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/bail.html
The Marshall Project: The Ins and Outs of Bail: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/28/the-ins-and-outs-of-bail
Mother Jones: Inside the Wild, Shadowy, and Highly Lucrative Bail Industry: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/bail-bond-prison-industry/