Interview with the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance


Denise O'Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, on pretrial justice

Denise O'Donnell

NCSL: We have observed renewed national attention by criminal justice systems to issues of pretrial release.  Do you agree and why do you think this is the case?

O’Donnell: Yes, I agree. We need to make sure we’re putting forth our best efforts on the front end of the system to ensure the people being admitted to jail need to be there. Over 60 percent of inmates in local jails are being held in pretrial status. They’ve not been found guilty of any crime, yet they’re often held for extended stays simply because they can’t afford to post bond. As a result, our national pretrial detention costs exceed $9 billion annually. I think it’s time for us to reassess how we’re processing these inmates. 

To address this need, the U.S. Attorney General in 2011 convened a national symposium on pretrial justice because he understood the critical need. The symposium produced a set of recommendations for public and private organizations to act on. These recommendations served as a catalyst for the positive reform you see going on now in Pretrial Justice. In response to one of the recommendations, the Office of Justice Programs formed a Pretrial Justice Working Group. It has served as a fantastic model that highlights what a committed group can accomplish at low-cost – most of the 80 or so organizations that started in the group did so without additional grant funding. Over the subsequent three years, they have developed projects and initiatives in response to the gaps and have addressed recommendations identified at the national symposium. You can find out more about the working group or join the group at

NCSL: BJA’s current strategic plan calls for “promoting the use of risk and need assessment throughout the criminal justice system.”  How does this apply in the pretrial arena?

O’Donnell: The Department of Justice has taken a leading role in promoting the use of evidence-based practices that are leading to improved outcomes in pretrial justice, specifically the use of validated risk assessment tools to inform pretrial release decisions. We recognize that reform at the front end of the criminal justice system is key to improved outcomes at each subsequent stage—problem-solving courts, smarter sentencing, smarter policing and prosecution, and smarter probation and parole. Fortunately, we have tools to help justice system professionals assess pretrial needs and risks. Having a valid assessment of an arrestee’s risk of failing to appear in court or being rearrested pending trial is a much-needed step in this process. These are two specific metrics by which we can measure the criminal justice system’s response to crime and reducing recidivism. BJA is working diligently to assist jurisdictions implement validated risk assessment tools that inform pretrial decision making and educate stakeholders about their value. These tools ensure the best information available is utilized so that dangerous offenders are detained and public safety is maintained in a cost-effective manner for local jurisdictions. Further, pretrial risk assessment provides improved, predicative assessments on an individual’s likelihood to reoffend and should be part of any high-functioning system.

NCSL: NCSL has tracked at least 85 new laws in 2013 that addressed various areas of pretrial policy, guiding local practices.  What specific BJA initiatives or tools can help states and localities with pretrial as well as other sentencing and corrections reforms?

O’Donnell: BJA has been a leader in developing several resources that can be used to help guide state and local leaders to improve their policies related to pretrial justice.  BJA offers technical assistance and training on pretrial justice issues through the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI). Their website,, maintains BJA-funded publications, including a number of case studies on successful jurisdictions, and many policy briefs on risk assessment, supervision, and other related topics. Another great resource, which I mentioned above, is the Pretrial Justice Working Group. 

We’re working with groups like the National Judicial College and the Justice Management Institute to train judges on how to make the best pretrial decisions. And we’re working with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation on a research effort that we hope will lead to even more effective decision-making tools.

Read the February State Legislatures "Predicting Pretrial Success" magazine article

BJA also provides short-term training and technical assistance through its National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC)  Examples of support from NTTAC include projects with the New York Association for Pretrial Services Agencies to develop a comprehensive action plan to achieve uniform compliance with standards and National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies’ accreditation, and the Oakland County, MI Pretrial Services to assist Oakland County in creating a strategy for educating key stakeholders—including the judiciary, state legislators, and county commissioners—regarding the issue of pretrial reform.

And I’ve saved the best for last—depending on appropriations, BJA hopes to fund pretrial demonstration sites that would serve as national models and provide an opportunity for evaluation of promising strategist for pre-trial reform. Please check the BJA website ( for information on how jurisdictions can participate in BJA’s Smart Pretrial Demonstration Project.

Donna Lyons for NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program conducted this discussion with Denise O’Donnell of BJA in January 2014.

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