HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy
Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, HKS; Professor of Sociology, FAS; Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor, Radcliffe


As a growing number of jurisdictions across the country have attempted to implement bail reforms, debates have intensified about the relationship between such reforms and crime, including and perhaps especially violent crime. Similar debates, for instance, have raged in New York, where the backlash against bail reform caused the state legislature to roll back key elements just three months after implementation. In recent weeks, New York Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed further rollbacks to the law to address continued concerns that bail reform has contributed to spikes in the state’s violent crime rate. Although largely driven by politics, these debates raise an important and timely set of empirical questions: What role does pretrial detention/release play in producing, or threatening, public safety? Does pretrial release incentivize crime and drive-up crime rates, including violent crime, as many in law enforcement have claimed? Or, all things considered, is pretrial detention the greater risk to public safety? This discussion paper is an effort to synthesize the evidence on this question. Before doing so, however, I specify the conceptualizations of public safety that I deploy throughout. I then draw from academic and policy research on the costs and benefits to public safety of pretrial detention/release, distinguishing evidence from studies of the impacts of releases resulting from routine pretrial practices, from bail reform, and from responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. No matter the cause of pretrial release, the evidence seems clear: Overall, pretrial detention is a far greater threat to public safety than pretrial release. Not only does detention increase the risk that even low-risk individuals might reoffend (or be rearrested), but detention also initiates a series of collateral consequences downstream that are difficult for many to overcome.


Smith, Sandra Susan. "Pretrial Detention, Pretrial Release & Public Safety." Arnold Ventures Public Safety Series, July 2022.