Ohio University

Case Study

Social workers shape the fate of defendants in the courtroom

In 1966, Congress enacted the Bail Reform Act, which allowed individuals charged with crimes to be released from jail prior to their trial dates. The legislation came in response to growing concerns about lengthy detentions for defendants who couldn’t post bail. The practice was not only expensive for the legal system, but drew objections from social justice advocates.

As part of this reform movement, the courts began working with case workers from private, nonprofit organizations to assess which defendants were suitable for release and which individuals should be detained on bond, says Ursula Castellano, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University.

Ursula Castellano
Ursula Castellano. Photo credit: Ben Siegel.

From 1998 to 2004, Castellano embarked on an extensive field study of the system in California to examine the effectiveness of these institutionalized pre-trial release programs. After training as a case worker, she worked with four different programs for individuals arrested for felonies and misdemeanors, including high-risk and homeless defendants. She interviewed 49 judges, case workers, and bail commissioners.

As detailed in her new book, Outsourcing Justice: The Role of Nonprofit Caseworkers in Pretrial Release Programs (Lynne Rienner/First Forum Press), Castellano found that nonprofit caseworkers play a much more critical role in the criminal justice system than just influencing pre-trial release decisions. These professionals also impact sentencing outcomes and often successfully advocate for alternatives to incarceration, she notes.

“Judges and attorneys very much rely on their input, and this has transformed traditional courtroom justice,” she says.

After an individual is arrested, case workers make several risk determinations, such as whether the defendant has a stable address, means of income, and good references from family and friends. If defendants meet these criteria, the court will release them “on their own recognizance,” which is a promise to return to court at a later date.

Castellano observed many benefits of the programs, which “humanize the legal system,” she says. The programs provide relief to often low-income defendants, and save money and bed space for the criminal courts and jails.

“On the other hand, the way in which they assess eligibility introduces some biases and cultural assumptions,” she notes. “Women with children were at times considered ‘unworthy’ of release, as they were interpreted as ‘bad mothers.’” Case workers also expressed differential assumptions about the pre-trial release “worthiness” of Latino and African-American arrestees, she adds.

Illustration of a scale and other legal memorabilia.
Illustration: Christina Ullman

 Case workers experience trade-offs in the system as well.

“They have to balance their social justice ideals with a need to demonstrate their efficacy to the courts,” she says. “And that played into whom they recommended for release.”

In general, however, Castellano found that these programs are effective from a fiscal and organizational standpoint.

With the United States facing an economic downturn, some pre-trial release programs recently have been at risk for local and state budget cuts, she notes. Advocates of these programs may need to seek new funding streams to sustain them.

“Their advantage is that they are well thought of by judges in particular,” Castellano says. “The amount of money they save the justice system in jail beds and court costs often surpasses their operational costs.”

With funding from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and the Ohio University Research Committee, Castellano now has expanded her study to an examination of the role of case managers in mental health courts. These relatively new programs were developed to divert select adult defendants with mental disabilities or illness into community treatment programs.

This article will appear in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

Follow Ohio University Research News on Twitter and Facebook.