39% Jump Bail or Get Rearrested Before Trial, Study Says : Crime: The Justice Department look at state courts found that 63% of defendants are released prior to court date. Figures mirror earlier counts.


More than a third of felony defendants in state courts released prior to trial in 1992 were arrested for a new offense or failed to appear in court, according to a study released today by the Justice Department. One of every 12 of the defendants who absconded before trial was still missing a year later.

The study’s results, drawn from a sample of felony cases in state courts in May, 1992, found that an estimated 63% of all felony defendants were released on their own recognizance, on bail or with some other conditions. Of those released before trial, an estimated 14% committed new offenses and 25% had a bench warrant issued for their arrest because they did not appear in court as scheduled.

The findings, which are consistent with previous surveys, are likely to provide fodder for critics of the criminal justice system. But despite pervasive public fear of crime, criminologists said few options are available to dramatically improve the numbers.


“These are scary statistics,” said Gerald M. Caplan, dean of McGeorge Law School in Sacramento and a former director of the National Institute of Justice.

“The reason they are scary is that there is no remedy in sight. This is analogous to a number of other crime-control problems: We can identify the problem, but we don’t have a recipe to solve it.”

Caplan said constitutional limits on pretrial detention combined with jail crowding leave judges few alternatives to such releases.

The study, Pretrial Release of Felony Defendants, was conducted by Brian A. Reaves and Jacob Perez, statisticians at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They tracked a sample representing 55,246 men and women charged with a felony during May, 1992, in the nation’s 75 most populous counties, which account for almost 50% of all reported crimes.

The researchers found that judges were far more likely to grant pretrial releases to defendants who had committed less-serious crimes and had no prior criminal record or history of failing to appear for court appearances. While only 6% of all felony defendants were held without bail, for instance, 40% of all murder defendants were so detained.

Overall, 27% of those released before trial had at least one felony conviction, including 9% who had a prior conviction for a violent felony.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., said that unless “there’s a reasonable presumption that the individual will flee,” the Constitution guarantees a “right to release under some kind of reasonable bail.”

Blumstein added: “The presumed reason for pretrial release under the presumption of innocence is that the individual will appear for trial. There’s no question that bail-setters take some account of the likelihood that the individual will commit a crime while awaiting trial. These decisions are always short of perfect.”

Another criminal justice expert said there is wide variation among courts in their success with pretrial release programs. He said some courts do better than others by carefully deciding which defendants to release and by providing conscientious supervision.

The findings indicate little change from surveys done in previous years. The overall pretrial release rate was 66% in 1988 and 65% in 1990. The failure-to-appear rate has also remained constant at about a quarter of those released.

The percentage of released felony defendants who were rearrested before trial decreased slightly from a rate of 18% in 1988 and 1990 to 14% in 1992.