Front and Center #5: The PFA in the Courtroom

  • Name
    Patrick Griffin ·
Front and Center:
May 7, 2024

Welcome to Front and Center, a new bimonthly newsletter of the Center for Criminal Justice at Loyola University Chicago. We’re Loyola’s institutional home for interdisciplinary research and education aimed at improving criminal justice policy and practice. Our work covers a wide range of criminal justice issues all over the justice field, here in Illinois and across the country, and we want to use this newsletter to keep our colleagues, partners, supporters, and friends up to date on what we’re learning. Please feel free to share Front and Center with anyone you know who may be interested in our work. And if you have feedback or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you!

The Pretrial Fairness Act in the Courtroom

We continue to post updates and interim findings from our ongoing evaluation of the implementation and impact of Illinois’ Pretrial Fairness Act (PFA), whenever we think what we’re learning and seeing might be useful to the field and the general public.

We just posted a brief report on changes in pretrial hearing practice we observed in four Illinois counties (Cook, Winnebago, Lake and McLean) between June 2022 (more than a year before the PFA took effect) and September-December 2023 (during the first few months of PFA implementation). Overall, we found some notable differences:

  • Median pretrial hearing length didn’t change much in these four counties, but there was a significant increase in the duration of detention hearings.
  • In contrast with previous bond court practice, judges usually articulated reasons for pretrial decisions under the PFA—and always did so in cases in which detention was at issue.
  • At least in Cook County, where we conducted the bulk of our post-PFA observations, hearings were more substantive, individualized, and focused than before the PFA, with arguments centering on public safety and flight risk, parties pointing to a diverse range of risk-relevant facts and case characteristics, and judges explaining their decisions in light of those case-specific factors.

Of course, this was during the new law’s first few months; over time, as court actors settle into routines, it’s possible that pretrial hearings may become more cursory. A second round of PFA court observations begins this summer, and we expect to share more of what we’re seeing in future reports.

The PFA and Domestic Violence

We also just shared an analysis of post-PFA detention in domestic violence cases, using publicly available data from four Illinois counties (this time Cook, DuPage, Kane and McHenry). Defendants charged with domestic violence offenses are eligible for detention under the PFA, if the state files a petition and supports it with a sufficient showing of safety or flight risk. In the counties we examined, we found wide variations in the proportion of domestic violence cases in which detention petitions were filed, as well as in the proportion of detention petitions granted. But overall, relatively few defendants charged with domestic violence—between 4% and 13% of those charged, depending on the county—ended up being detained pretrial.

The PFA and Chicago Crime?

Much of the debate over the PFA, especially during the period leading up to its implementation, concerned whether and how new restrictions on pretrial detention might impact public safety. When enough time has elapsed, our evaluation should shed some light on this question, by estimating the extent to which defendants released as a result of the new law commit new crimes while on release.

In the meantime, we’ve developed a data tool that simply tracks crimes reported to the Chicago Police, both before and after the PFA. The Chicago Incident Tracker shows trends in overall reported crime for each week since 2018, as well as trends in seven common violent and nonviolent crime categories. Users can see how the most recent week’s crime reporting compares with an average calculated from the same week during the previous three years. It won’t settle any arguments—it may start some new ones. But it does provide some useful context relevant to public safety, pre- and post-PFA, in the state’s largest city.

Helping Prosecutors Tell “Data Stories”

As part of our involvement in the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (PPI) project, the Center works with prosecutors all over the country to collect, analyze, visualize and share data on the quality and outcomes of their work. More than thirty prosecutors’ offices across ten states make up the PPI Network, all of them committed to using and publicly posting data, as a matter of transparency, accountability, and fairness.

Recently, after years of collaboration, we helped the Office of the District Attorney in Santa Clara County, California launch a new online data dashboard to inform and engage the community about its work. It’s the eleventh public dashboard we’ve helped build, and we think it looks great. But its real value goes beyond looks: a well-designed data dashboard is a way of telling an honest, dynamic and nuanced story about the local prosecution of crime. The Santa Clara DA’s dashboard provides a visual account of the office’s successes and failures, a record of its changes over time, handy measures of its efficiency and fairness, and clear indications of areas where improvement is needed. We’re confident it will prove its worth over time, and hope it will serve as a model for other offices seeking to improve their performance and responsiveness to their communities.

School’s Out

This week marks the end of another term at Loyola, and also the successful finish of three new undergraduate classes—based on the Center’s projects, taught by the Center’s staff, and explicitly designed to draw a new generation of student-researchers into the Center’s work.

Prison Reform was a unique “service learning” class, leveraging the Center’s many working partnerships with nonprofits like the John Howard Association and the Women’s Justice Institute to provide Loyola students with learning opportunities in the real world of criminal justice reform. In addition to hearing from a series of invited speakers with personal experience of the justice system, our students learned by doing, giving more than 400 hours of volunteer service to our partner organizations—from data analysis, survey research, note-taking and transcription to tabling at events, creating flyers, and collecting and sorting donations. One group visited the Sheridan Correctional Center to record prison inmates reading books to their children back home. Another toured the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s youth facility at St. Charles, met some of the young men housed there, then hosted them on a return visit to Loyola’s campus in Chicago the following week.

“With the young men,” one class member reflected afterwards, “we spoke about their experience at the facility briefly, but we predominately built connections. We talked about what music we liked, our favorite foods and what we like to cook, our college experience, and more. When they came to Loyola, it was so wonderful to see them be free.”

It was the kind of experience not many college students get. “We learned to see things from a new perspective,” another student wrote. “I learned what it truly means to listen to people, learn from people with different backgrounds, and the value of volunteering and service work.”

The Center’s newly created Criminal Justice Data Science class was “experiential” in a different way: students spent a challenging fifteen weeks learning the essential data science skills that justice researchers need, including how to code in the programming language known as Python, all under the online supervision of Deputy Director of Analytics Branden DuPont—an experience one likened to “doing math with my Dad.” Center Codirector Don Stemen also taught a new Bail Reform class that gave students an up-close look at the workings of the pretrial detention system, using real data from our large-scale evaluation of the PFA, as well as an opportunity to observe post-PFA detention and conditions hearings in local courtrooms.

We’d like to develop more courses like these, because we think it’s an important part of the Center’s mission: not just to do research to improve the justice system, but to attract and guide talented young people into the work, so they can carry it on.

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