Tulare County to release low-level arrestees sooner

Tulare County is one of 16 trial courts to receive grant for pilot program to release low-level felony offenders within 24 hours of arrest; expand monitoring to ensure they show up for court hearings

The Sun-Gazette

TULARE COUNTY – Those arrested for non-violent crimes will be released sooner but monitored more closely under a pilot project being implemented by the Tulare County Probation Department. 

At its Jan. 28 meeting, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved an agreement between the probation department and the Tulare County Superior Court to operate a pilot program through December 2021.

Tulare County was one of 16 trial courts throughout the state to receive a grant from the Judicial Council in August to administer a two-year pretrial pilot program that will fund, implement, operate and evaluate pretrial decision-making in Tulare County. The goal of the $4.7 million grant is to ensure that low-level felony arrestees are released prior to arraignment or pretrial and monitored closely to ensure they return to court for their next hearing. More specifically, the pilot program aims to expand own recognizance and monitored releases; expand the use of pretrial risk assessment tools; and identify and reduce biases based on race, ethnicity, and gender in pretrial release decision-making.

Under the program, the Probation Department must conduct a pretrial risk assessment on anyone booked into jail custody, complete a release recommendation prior to arraignment, monitor those released prior to arraignment or pretrial to ensure they return to court. 

In her report to the Supervisors, Probation Chief Michelle Bonwell stated the money will be used to add a dedicated project manager to coordinate pre-arraignment assessments for all booked and retained in custody by this summer and the Court will use a portion of the money to hire a commissioner to ensure release decisions are made prior to the arraignment to reduce the need for multiple hearings in the first steps of due process and work with a magistrate to enable releases on weekends, evenings and holidays. The project manager’s job will be to ensure everyone is assessed within 24 hours of their arrest and to develop an electronic process to access assessment reports and sign off on them remotely.

The County has operated a pretrial program since 2016 and has an established working group with representatives from the Court, Probation Department, the Sheriffs Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Visalia Police Department. Having a pretrial facility and a work group in place allowed Tulare County to easily qualify for the grant funding. 

Bonwell said the program has already seen the desired results. In the year prior to the pilot program, 5,260 assessments were completed on felony arrestees and 881 received pretrial monitoring services. Since August 2019 when the program began, 2,753 assessments were filed on all felony matters and 273 have received pretrial monitoring services per month. That means the department is on track to increase the number of assessments by a quarter. Bonwell also noted that nearly 9 in 10 of those released have returned to court for their hearing dates since October. 

“Although we are releasing clients from jail, it’s the low-level clients who were determined not a threat to the community and they coming back to court at a higher rate than they were prior to implementation of the program,” Bonwell said. “This will maximize public safety, court appearances and pretrial release and minimize pretrial detention.”

Supervisor Dennis Townsend asked what kind of information was relayed to the judge in the assessment. Bonwell said the arrestees prior record, a brief summary of the offense and their failure to appear rate, just to name a few.

Chair Pete Vander Poel asked what steps the probation department will take to ensure the successful pilot program outlives the grant funding. Bonwell said the project manager position is being filled by existing staff and much of the funding will be used to improve technology to digitize the reporting and monitoring in order to expand the project to the misdemeanor jail population. 

“I like that you are applying it to technology and hopefully do more work and screen more people with the same resources,” Vander Poel said. “So far it’s been quite successful.” 

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