Lehigh Valley, PA – In a first-of-its-kind study, The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute (LVJI) has produced data demonstrating that the longer a defendant stays in jail before trial, the more likely they are to receive a harsher sentence. The study, published in the prestigious academic journal, Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, details a data analysis of three years of criminal cases in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

“We believe this to be the first study in the nation which examines the link between the length of time a defendant spends in jail before trial and the sentence they ultimately receive under state sentencing guidelines.” LVJI Executive Director Joseph Welsh explained. Specifically, the study reviewed the effect on “departures” from standard guideline sentences as they related to the number of days a defendant was incarcerated prior to trial.

LVJI Chief Data Scientist Victoria Wrigley detailed the study’s top-line findings: “Using court case data from Lehigh and Northampton Counties from

2017-2021, the article examines the effects that length of stay in pretrial detention has on three types of departures from sentencing guidelines: (1) assigning a supervisory sentence as opposed to the recommended carceral sentence, (2) assigning a shorter sentence as opposed to the recommended sentence, and (3) assigning a longer sentence as opposed to the recommended sentence. Net of a slew of case and defendant characteristics, we found that longer stays in pretrial detention were related to greater odds of carceral sentences, lower odds of shorter sentences, and greater odds of longer sentences relative to the guidelines’ recommendations. Furthermore, Black individuals who were detained for longer periods were less likely to receive supervisory sentences than their equivalent White counterparts,” Wrigley explained.

Prior studies looked only at whether or not a person was incarcerated at all before trial, as opposed to the length of that detention. Almost all looked at federal sentencing guidelines, instead of state-based guidelines such as Pennsylvania’s. “All of the previous studies regarding pretrial detention and guideline departures that we reviewed measured pretrial detention as a yes/no variable, meaning that either the defendant was fully detained or fully released before trial, but this often isn’t the case. We found the length of the pre-trial detention to be significant,” Wrigley noted.

The article poses two mam questions: (1) do longer stays in pretrial detention make it less likely that a judge will deviate from the guidelines in the defendant’s favor, and (2) do longer stays in pretrial detention exacerbate racial disparities in this way?

Among the study’s principal findings, as detailed by Wrigley, are:

  • The analysis accounts for the defendant’s race, sex, age, prior record, and current criminal justice status. Additionally, the analysis accounts for the type, severity, and number of crimes convicted in the current case, the type of attorney, if the case took place during COVID, and if the defendant pleaded guilty or went to trial. Net of those factors, we found that longer stays in pretrial detention were related to greater odds of carceral sentences, lower odds of shorter sentences, and greater odds of longer sentences relative to the guidelines’ recommendations.
  • In particular, a 2.7-fold increase in the length of stay corresponded to a 15% reduction in the odds of a supervisory sentence, an 8% reduction in the odds of a shorter sentence, and an 11% increase in the odds of a longer sentence. Additionally, Black individuals who experienced this increase in pretrial detention were 12% less likely to receive a dispositional departure than their equivalent White counterparts.
  • 53% of defendants who were never detained received a supervisory sentence over a carceral sentence, but only 12% of defendants who were detained for as little as one day received this outcome.
  • This is the first study, to our knowledge, to document that pretrial detention negatively affects the odds of favorable departure outcomes in local courts. Previous studies focused on federal courts, used yes/no measures of pretrial detention, and did not examine how race interacted with pretrial detention.
  • The implications this has for the criminal justice system are deeply troubling. Two-thirds of the individuals in our dataset were detained pretrial for at least

3 days, and 98% of them were detained for failure to post bail. This demonstrates that pretrial detention, which arises from poverty, increases the likelihood of more severe and punitive sentences, net of case factors like

crime type, severity, and prior record. These results support the argument that pretrial detention perpetuates a cycle of poverty and criminality.

The full article “The Effects of Pretrial Detention Length on Sentencing Guideline Departures in Two Pennsylvania Counties” is available at the following link: https://ccjls.scholasticahq.com/article/90808-the-effects-of-pretrial-detention- length-on-sentencing-guideline-departures-in-two-pennsylvania-counties [Copyright, © 2023 by the journal of Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society (CCJLS) and The Western Society of Criminology. Used by permission.]

The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent Research, Policy and Advocacy organization focused on improving justice system outcomes, and broader social justice issues. LVJI uses a scientific, data-driven approach to promoting a re-imagined justice system which is fair and equitable for all communities.


Information provided to TVL by:
Joseph E. Welsh
Executive Director
Lehigh Valley Justice Institute