Study: Public Defender’s Pilot Program Curtails Pretrial Incarceration, Saves Costs

San Francisco—An innovative pilot program through the San Francisco Public Defender’s office has saved nearly a million dollars of taxpayer money and thousands of jail beds during its first five months of operation, according to a study released today by the California Policy Lab at University of California Berkeley.

The Pretrial Release Unit (PRU), staffed by two public defenders and a single investigator, broke new ground in October by allowing people who cannot afford private counsel to access legal representation shortly after being booked into jail. Ordinarily, these 80-90 percent of arrestees must wait two to five days until a lawyer is appointed by the court. During those critical days, prosecutors decide whether to pursue criminal charges. Bail amounts are also set.

In the study, The Impact of Early Representation: An Analysis of the Public Defender’s Pretrial Release Unit, researcher Alena Yarmosky found people represented by the PRU spend less time in jail and are twice as likely to have their cases dismissed at arraignment. Those with parole holds who receive PRU advocacy spend 9.5 fewer days in county jail, the study found.

“By comparing recipients of Pretrial Release Unit services to similarly situated arrestees, we found that the PRU doubled the likelihood of release at arraignment, and that the PRU-provided parole advocacy substantially reduced the time that arrestees were incarcerated pretrial,” said Evan White, executive director of the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley.

The report also quantified the cost-savings of the program. The PRU saved 4,689 jail beds during its initial five months of operation. This translates to $806,508 saved due to the program so far. The PRU, which is seeking continued funding from San Francisco supervisors, would cost only $440,501 in FY ’18-’19 and only $462,567 in FY ’19-’20.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi noted that the PRU also has a direct and positive impact on people’s lives.

“Because representation starts right away, our investigator and attorneys talk to witnesses and discover exonerating evidence earlier. That means innocent people don’t have to languish in jail,” Adachi said. “More people are able to keep their jobs, maintain stable housing and protect their families from separation.”

The full report can be found here.