Last year, Pulaski County became one of seven counties nationwide selected to take part in a program designed to improve the pre-trial aspects of the justice system. The program focuses on decisions made before a defendant comes to trial—whether a police officer issues a citation or makes an arrest, for example—or whether a judge decides to release the accused on bail or make them wait in jail.
Those pre-trial decisions can be costly to the county, and potentially do more harm than good to the public and the accused. Chastity Scifres, chief deputy at the Pulaski County Attorney's Office, says jailing someone because they might not show up for their court date can have significant consequences.
"If you're in jail for even two days, it seriously affects your life," Scifres said. "You may or may not be a single parent who need to have children looked after. And most of us can't afford to be away from a job for more than two days, or you risk the potential of losing your job. So, there are a lot more impacts than just financially for the county. There are a lot of community-based impacts as well."
Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, the county's top administrator, says the process currently used by district and circuit court judges is error prone, meaning that some offenders who are let go on bail don't show up for court.
"If we're getting some of those decisions wrong on the side of releasing people until their court date, [then] we're probably making a lot of mistakes on the people we're incarcerating too."
To address those weaknesses in the system, a team made up of Pulaski County district and circuit court judges, representatives from the sheriff’s office, community members, and county officials like Scifres and Hyde, applied for, and won, a grant from the Center for Effective Public Policy. The five-year grant will first provide data collection and analysis tools. Patterns in the data can help make clear issues like racial bias.
"We all know the issues exist and that African Americans and minorities are affected by the system more often than Caucasians, but that’s all…speculation and conjecture until you have the numbers, and you're sitting there with cold, hard data."
Madeline Carter, a co-Project Director for Advancing Pre-trial Policy and Research, says the data helps inform policy recommendations for law enforcement agencies and the courts.
"Our goal as a project is to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, so we’re working with our project sites to advance comprehensive systemic pretrial improvements that are fair, effective, and equitable," Carter said. She oversees similar projects in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Washington State, and Minnesota.
According to Scifres, a more efficient system for sharing data between various courts and law enforcement groups can also help people who come in contact with law enforcement while having a mental health crisis. Instead of being sent to court or jail, "they can get the support that they need and also referred to a community mental health center that can continue to help sustain them while they're in the community and they can safely be released. There's no reason for them to even enter into the criminal justice system," Scifres said.
In 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed Act 423 into law, paving the way for crisis stabilization units in the state. Pulaski, Sebastian, Washington, and Craighead counties each have a unit designed to be an alternative for many nonviolent offenders. Making more use of those resources may be one outcome of the pretrial research program still in its early stages.