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    The Impact of COVID-19 on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Pretrial Release Decisions 

    Milwaukee, WI 

    Pretrial incarceration makes defendants more likely to accept less advantageous pleas from prosecutors and receive final sentences that include incarceration. Defendants who cannot afford bail are more likely to be Black and low-income, meaning pretrial incarceration reinforces racial disparities present in the judicial and correctional systems. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, judges across the country have reduced the use of bail for many defendants, yet how this practice is affecting racial and ethnic disparities is unknown. Research suggests that in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is often recognized as the most segregated US city and which incarcerates Black people at the third-highest rate among the country’s 50 largest urban areas, bias in the judicial system has contributed to these statistics, making Black men less likely to be released on their own recognizance, the most likely group to remain incarcerated pretrial, and the least likely to receive probation.

    With Catalyst Grant funding, JusticePoint, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, will conduct statistical analyses of official court data to determine the pandemic’s effects on racial disparities in pretrial release practices. To do so, they will examine what impact the pandemic had on pretrial release practices and outcomes and whether changes in pretrial decisionmaking influenced racial and ethnic disparities in pretrial release and sentencing. Whether or not an impact is found, their findings could encourage Milwaukee County and other jurisdictions to further change their pretrial release practices. For instance, if findings indicate the changes did not affect or decrease disparities, nonbail pretrial release options could be increased, reducing the negative effects presentence incarceration has on defendants of color. If findings indicate the changes increased disparities, bail reform efforts may only be exacerbating disparities, and stronger efforts may be needed to ensure such reforms are equitable. 


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