Neighborhood Context and the Pretrial Process: Do Defendants Face Adverse Outcomes Due to Their Home Address?

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(9) 1340 –1365
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419890124
Neighborhood Context and
the Pretrial Process: Do
Defendants Face Adverse
Outcomes Due to Their
Home Address?
Stacie St. Louis1
When extralegal factors correlate with differences in bond amount and pretrial
detention, justice may be compromised. Prior research has identified disparity
related to defendant characteristics, such as income and race. This article offers
insight into a less explored source of disparity, neighborhood context, and a
particularly disadvantaged population, defendants, or pretrial detainees, unable to
afford their bail in court and booked into a county jail. Considering the desire for
community safety, the difficulty of predicting dangerousness and court attendance,
and the impact of ecological factors on other court outcomes, it is hypothesized that
neighborhood context heightens disparity in the pretrial process. Findings support
this argument. Offense elements best predict bond amount; however, there exists
disparity based on neighborhood characteristics. When assessing the same factors in
relation to detention length, bond amount is not significant, but rather individual- and
neighborhood-level characteristics. Implications are discussed in light of current bail
reform efforts.
bail, pretrial detention, extralegal effects, neighborhood context
While the United States maintains a presumption of innocence, concerns have been
raised regarding the cash bail system and, particularly, that pretrial detention punishes
1Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stacie St. Louis, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Churchill Hall, 360
Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
890124CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419890124Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSt. Louis
St. Louis 1341
innocent people. For decades, bail decisions have revolved around two interests,
including (a) the perceived safety risk that the defendant poses to the community, and
(b) the perceived likelihood that the defendant will return for future court appearances
(Goldkamp & Gottfredson, 1985). Assessing defendants’ dangerousness and court
attendance, however, is a difficult task. As evidence is still being collected in the pre-
trial period, many decisions are made with incomplete information (Albonetti, 1989;
Nagel, 1983), involving “highly subjective evaluations” (Demuth, 2003, p. 881). For
instance, in a qualitative study of interviews with judges, one judge described the pre-
trial stage as the “toughest” because “you really don’t know a lot about the case so you
have to consider as much information as you have in front of you and, um, do your
best” (Clair & Winter, 2016, p. 345).
Most research on pretrial decisions focuses on individual-level defendant charac-
teristics (e.g., race or income) and their contribution to disparity. Although valuable,
one must remember that individuals do not exist in a vacuum—They are situated in
communities that vary in their cultural norms and levels of social (dis)advantage.
Ecological characteristics are well integrated into the literature, explaining individual
offending and differences in crime rates across communities (e.g., DuBois, 1899;
Sampson et al., 1997; Shaw & McKay, 1942). In addition, over the past decade, more
scholars have examined the impact of neighborhood-level characteristics on court pro-
cesses, such as sentencing outcomes (Rodriguez, 2013; Wooldredge, 2007). Just as
neighborhood context—specifically, concentrated disadvantage, residential stability,
and racial/ethnic homogeneity—affects other criminal justice outcomes, it may
heighten the already problematic levels of disparity in the cash bail system.1 For exam-
ple, as there are greater criminal opportunities in socially disorganized neighborhoods
(e.g., Shaw & McKay, 1942), court actors may consider the neighborhood as a risk
factor in determining defendants’ likelihood of reoffending. Moreover, court actors
may deem defendants from a socially disorganized neighborhood more dangerous
(Kutateladze et al., 2014; Wooldredge et al., 2016). Alternatively, court actors may
treat defendants who reside in socially organized communities more harshly as they
are perceived to threaten the social order within affluent communities (J. H. Williams
& Rosenfeld, 2016). As such, there is reason to believe that neighborhood characteris-
tics affect pretrial decisions, including bond amount and pretrial detention length.
Achieving a better understanding of disparity in the pretrial process is essential.
Defendants held in pretrial detention are legally innocent and face a host of challenges
when removed from their families, homes, communities, jobs, and society. Examples
of this include (a) being held in a dangerous environment with an increased chance of
victimization (Appleman, 2012), (b) uninhabitable living conditions due to jail over-
crowding (Appleman, 2012; Petteruti & Walsh, 2008), (c) heightened physical and
mental health issues (Noonan, 2016; Petteruti & Walsh, 2008; Zeng, 2019), (d) loss of
employment (Wiseman, 2013) alongside administrative fees and consequences for
missing payments (Appleman, 2012; Diller, 2010), and finally, (e) their children being
put into foster care (Petteruti & Walsh, 2008). Moreover, recent research has high-
lighted that being detained pretrial negatively affects subsequent case outcomes
(Dobbie et al., 2018; Goulette et al., 2015; Gupta et al., 2016; Heaton et al., 2017;

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