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Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice


  • March 29, 2017

    This Stanford Law Review article by Quattrone Center researchers Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson, and Megan Stevenson offers a first-of-its-kind empirical analysis of misdemeanor pretrial detention.

    Abstract: In misdemeanor cases, pretrial detention poses a particular problem because it may induce otherwise innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to exit jail, potentially creating widespread error in case adjudication. While practitioners have long recognized this possibility, empirical evidence on the downstream impacts of pretrial detention on misdemeanor defendants and their cases remains limited. This Article uses detailed data on hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor cases resolved in Harris County, Texas—the third largest county in the U.S.—to measure the effects of pretrial detention on case outcomes and future crime. We find that detained defendants are 25% more likely than similarly situated releasees to plead guilty, 43% more likely to be sentenced to jail, and receive jail sentences that are more than twice as long on average. Furthermore, those detained pretrial are more likely to commit future crime, suggesting that detention may have a criminogenic effect. These differences persist even after fully controlling for the initial bail amount as well as detailed offense, demographic, and criminal history characteristics. Use of more limited sets of controls, as in prior research, overstates the adverse impacts of detention. A quasi-experimental analysis based upon case timing confirms that these differences likely reflect the casual effect of detention. These results raise important constitutional questions, and suggest that Harris County could save millions of dollars a year, increase public safety, and reduce wrongful convictions with better pretrial release policy.

    Summary of Key Findings

  • March 13, 2017
    This article by Quattrone Research Fellows Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson reviews research identifying opportunities for improving pretrial processes in the United States.

    Abstract: Our current pretrial system imposes high costs on both the people who are detained pretrial and the taxpayers who foot the bill. These costs have prompted a surge of bail reform around the country. Reformers seek to reduce pretrial detention rates, as well as racial and socioeconomic disparities in the pretrial system, while simultaneously improving appearance rates and reducing pretrial crime. The current state of pretrial practice suggests that there is ample room for improvement. Bail hearings are often cursory, with no defense counsel present. Money-bail practices lead to high rates of detention even among misdemeanor defendants and those who pose no serious risk of crime or flight. Infrequent evaluation means that the judges and magistrates who set bail have little information about how their bail-setting practices affect detention, appearance and crime rates. Practical and low-cost interventions, such as court reminder systems, are underutilized. To promote lasting reform, this chapter identifies pretrial strategies that are both within the state’s authority and supported by empirical research. These interventions should be designed with input from stakeholders, and carefully evaluated to ensure that the desired improvements are achieved.
  • February 5, 2017
    In this article published in Tolle Lege: The Villanova Law Review, Steven Raper leads a collaborative team of Penn researchers and Montgomery County (PA) District Attorneys in reporting on the results of an award-winning root cause analysis (RCA) conducted in the county.
  • February 3, 2017
    This paper, co-authored by Quattrone Research Fellow Amanda Bergold and published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, compares the efficacy of expert testimony versus jury instructions as safeguards to assist jurors to accurately evaluate eyewitness testimony.

    Link to published version
  • January 26, 2017

    This paper, co-authored by Quattrone Research Fellow Amanda Bergold and published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice, evaluates the effects of reforms designed to improve juror assessment of eyewitness identification, a leading cause of error in the U.S. criminal justice system.

    Abstract: Mistaken eyewitness identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Even with procedural safeguards (e.g. attorney argument, cross examination of witnesses) in place, jurors still have difficulty evaluating the reliability of eyewitness identifications. The purpose of the current study was to test the New Jersey Supreme Court’s assumptions that recently implemented research-based case-specific jury instructions sensitize jurors to unreliable eyewitness testimony. Four hundred sixty-eight jury-eligible adults watched a trial simulation in which estimator variables, system variables, and jury instruction were manipulated, and subsequently rendered a verdict. The Henderson instructions influenced mock jurors’ perceptions of the eyewitness identification, but these perceptions did not translate to their verdict decisions. Rather than sensitizing jurors, the instructions induced an overall skepticism of eyewitness identification. Taken together, results indicate that the current Henderson instructions should be modified to improve juror sensitivity to various witnessing and identification conditions.

    Link to published version

  • September 19, 2016
    This study by John MacDonald and Ellen Donnelly, conducted at the request of the Delaware Access to Justice Commission’s Committee on Fairness in the Criminal Justice System, involved a statistical review of all adults arrested and charged with a criminal offense in Delaware between 2012 and 2014 to determine the extent to which race is a factor in explaining the likelihood or length of any subsequent incarceration sentence. While the authors caution that the study does not identify exact causes for any observed disparities, factors such as the offense charged at arrest, pretrial detention and contextual factors such as criminal history appear to be important contributors to Black/White differences in incarceration.

    Link to Access to Justice Commission press release on the study
  • June 15, 2016
    This article by Stephanos Bibas in the William and May Law Review proposes ways to improve the plea bargaining process so as to improve fairness and reduce wrongful convictions.

    Abstract: American criminal procedure developed on the assumption that grand juries and petit jury trials were the ultimate safeguards of fair procedures and accurate outcomes. But now that plea bargaining has all but supplanted juries, we need to think through what safeguards our plea-bargaining system should be built around. This Symposium Article sketches out principles for redesigning our plea-bargaining system from the ground up around safeguards. Part I explores the causes of factual, moral, and legal inaccuracies in guilty pleas. To prevent and remedy these inaccuracies, it proposes a combination of quasi-inquisitorial safeguards, more vigorous criminal defense, and better normative evaluation of charges, pleas, and sentences. Part II then diagnoses unfair repercussions caused by defendants’ lack of information and understanding, laymen’s lack of voice, and the public’s lack of information and participation. To prevent and fix these sources of unfairness, it proposes ways to better inform pleas and to make plea procedures more procedurally just.
  • May 4, 2016
    This working paper by Quattrone Center Research Fellow Megan Stevenson provides innovative new quasi-experimental evidence on the impacts of bail.

    Abstract: Instrumenting for detention status with the bail-setting propensities of rotating magistrates I find that pretrial detention leads to a 13% increase in the likelihood of being convicted, an effect explained by an increase in guilty pleas among defendants who otherwise would have been acquitted or had their charges dropped. On average, those detained will be liable for $128 more in court fees and will receive incarceration sentences that are almost five months longer. Effects can be seen in both misdemeanor and felony cases, across age and race, and appear particularly large for first or second time arrestees. Case types where evidence tends to be weaker also show pronounced effects: a 30% increase in pleading guilty and an additional 18 months in the incarceration sentence. While previous research has shown correlations between pretrial detention and unfavorable case outcomes, this paper is the first to use a quasi-experimental research design to show that the relationship is causal.
  • April 25, 2016
    In this groundbreaking report, the Quattrone Center provides a first detailed look at the structure and functioning of Conviction Review Units across the United States.

    U.S. policymakers and the public are increasingly concerned about wrongful convictions– situations where innocent individuals have been convicted and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. The most prevalent institutional response by prosecutors to address post-conviction fact-based claims of actual innocence is the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), sometimes called the Conviction Integrity Unit. Since the creation of the first CRU in the mid-2000s, more than 25 such units have been announced across the country; more than half of these have been created in the past 24 months.

    Most CRUs have grown up ad-hoc, often in reaction to a limited number of specific cases with unique circumstances. Very few have written protocols, policies, or procedures, and few of those have been made public. This paper reports results from the first ever national survey of CRUs designed to assist: (a) Current CRUs in understanding how their peers have approached common challenges; (b) Offices without CRUs in the creation of effective units; and (c) Communities in developing metrics to evaluate the units and their utility.
  • February 29, 2016
    This article co-authored by Quattrone Center affiliated faculty member Jon Klick and published in the Journal of Law and Economics examines ways that providing exonerees with compensation can improve the accuracy of the criminal adjudication process.

    Abstract: A great concern with plea bargains is that they may induce innocent individuals to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed. In this article, we identify schemes that reduce the number of innocent pleas without affecting guilty individuals’ plea-bargaining incentives. Large compensations for exonerees reduce expected costs associated with wrongful determinations of guilt in trial and thereby reduce the number of innocent pleas. Any distortion in guilty individuals’ incentives to take plea bargains caused by these compensations can be offset by a small increase in the discounts offered for pleading guilty. Although there are many statutory-reform proposals for increasing exoneree compensation, no one has yet noted this desirable separating effect of compensations. We argue that such reforms are likely to achieve this result without causing losses in deterrence.
  • February 10, 2016
    This study, published in the Lancet Psychiatry and co-authored by Academic Director Paul Heaton, examines whether a program for handling substance-involved offenders in the criminal justice system that replaces traditional probation with a new approach based upon frequent monitoring and swift, certain, but modest sanctions can improve population health. Analysing county-level data, the study shows that implementation of 24/7 Sobriety in South Dakota—the largest such program targeting alcohol-involved offenders to date—is associated with a reduction in mortality of 4.2% (95% CI 1·5–6·9; p<0.01). The association is evident among causes strongly and often acutely associated with excessive alcohol use such as circulatory conditions. These results provide additional support for swift, certain, and fair sanctioning approaches to community supervision, and build upon prior research suggesting that such programs can reduce crime.


  • October 16, 2015
    The Access to Justice Commission, an initiative of the Delaware Judiciary, has requested analysis of several aspects of Delaware’s criminal justice system to determine whether reforms in policing, prosecution, adjudication and imprisonment can be accomplished in a way that would reduce racial disparities, while not increasing the incidence of violent crime. The Quattrone Center provided recommendations to the commission on ways to improve fairness in police searches, bail, charging and sentencing, and application of alternatives to incarceration.
  • April 20, 2015
    This white paper describes an internal Root Cause Analysis (“RCA”) conducted by the Montgomery County, PA District Attorney’s Office in partnership with the Quattrone Center. The Quattrone Center specializes in RCA regarding errors within the criminal justice system. RCA has been used in complex and fragmented industries (e.g., healthcare, aviation, nuclear power) to understand the various factors (direct and environmental) that lead to both individual and systemic-based errors, and to provide interventions that can effectively prevent future error.
  • February 1, 2014
    The “systems approach” has been used, improved, and refined over time to improve safety and reduce errors in a variety of complex, high-risk industries, including health care, aviation, and manufacturing, among others. While the challenge of preventing errors in well-meaning complex systems is neither new nor unique to criminal law, the need for error reduction in the criminal justice system is clear. This document advocates for the application of a systems approach to reducing errors in the criminal justice system, generating reform in a fashion that will unify well-intentioned but professionally adversarial participants around an objective shared by all: the integrity of investigations, prosecutions, and adjudications, and the elimination of known and currently unknown errors that undermine the fair administration of justice. It then sets forth requirements for the successful application of a systems approach, and a model for interaction among researchers, reformers, and practitioners in the criminal justice system – including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officials – that will allow for more rigorous analyses of the criminal justice system and the design, testing, dissemination and implementation of successful best practices that will improve the fair administration of justice.