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Bail Reform: Examining a national issue through state-level media analysis

By Anissa Pierre and Emily Boardman Ndulue

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Across the United States, citizens, politicians, and advocacy groups are calling for reform to the bail and pretrial detention systems. Pretrial detention, also known as remand, is the practice of imprisoning a person awaiting trial for crime. Bail is payment, usually in the form of money, for the release from imprisonment of a person awaiting trial. There are many concerns about the presumptions these systems have about people charged with a crime, their effects on the lives of the detainees, and their effects on the prison and judicial systems. There is a particular concern for the inequities the bail system creates for people with lower incomes who cannot afford to pay the bail amount. Reform to these systems can be achieved through new policies and legislation; however, for issues so widely acknowledged, the case for their reformation varies greatly from state to state. The news media plays an important role in this.

Media Cloud researchers were approached by The Ford Foundation to explore how pretrial detention and bail reform were covered by American news media in the year between November 2017 to November 2018.  For this project, researchers indexed U.S. national and regional sources, resulting in a corpus of 5,056 stories relating to bail or pretrial reform from over 1,300 sources.

Take Aways

There are many kinds of pretrial detention systems, like electronic monitoring and pretrial release; however, the term bail reform” dominates the pretrial detention reform conversation, showing up in 65 percent of the stories in the corpus. It is important to note that in some instances, the term “bail reform” was being used inaccurately to describe other reforms to pretrial detention.  

Coverage on these topics was not driven by breaking events but by editorial decisions like exposes, investigations and popularly circulated news pieces.

Bail and pretrial reform is a state level issue with coverage varying greatly state to state. Sources in some states, like California and New York, published hundreds of stories on the topic, while sources in other states had stories in the single digits. Media sources in North Dakota and Oregon didn't publish any stories on the topic at all.

The issues covered within the topic also range. Coverage in Colorado dealt with judicial advocacy towards reform. Indiana media focused on jail cost and overcrowding as driving factors. In New Jersey, the media had mixed coverage of post-reform effects.

Framing the narrative

The research found that bail and pretrial detention reform were discussed mainly in five contexts. Coverage of government policy change focused on issues like bills in the legislative process and prosecutorial policy changes and reforms. The November 2018 election garnered coverage of local and district campaigns and candidates highlighting bail reform as part of their platform. Many sources wrote explainers on algorithms and pretrials risk assessments related to AI and algorithms in the court. Many expressed concern about bias and lack of transparency and judicial oversight. Stories about racial/social justice activism focused on community and non-profit efforts to bail people out of jail and close specific facilities. These stories also covered celebrity advocacy. Finally, expose and investigation pieces included stories about individuals harmed by the injustices in the pretrial system and people committing crimes after being released before trial.

California Bail Reform Bill

In addition to looking at the bail and pretrial detention reform generally, researchers also looked specifically at media trends surrounding the California Bail Reform Bill that passed in August 2018, making California the first state to completely cash bail. This corpus included 543 stories that contained the terms “California bail reform” in the same sentence, published from December 2016, when the bill was introduced, to October 2018. The articles were published by 241 sources, unsurprisingly most of which are based in California.

Coverage peaks happened on the day the bill was passed and on the day NPR published a follow-up story a few months later, however, nearly 75 percent of the days in the timeframe saw zero stories published on the topic.

The conversation has mixed opinions

Most media agreed that some type of reform was needed, though full support for the final bill was the least prevalent framing. The framings for this topic in order of prevalence were:

  • Need for Reform: stories highlighting a need for bail reform

  • Process: facts only, balanced or process stories

  • For Reform but Against Final Bill: stories opposing the final bill as insufficient reform

  • Against Reform: stories opposing bail reform in general

  • For Final Bill: stories supporting the final bill’s passage

NPR was incredibly influential in the coverage of the bail reform bill. Fifteen percent of the total stories matching the search query were syndicated copies of two NPR articles, “California becomes first state to end cash bail after 40-Year Fight” and “California's bail overhauls may do more harm than good, reformers say.” The former is mostly “For Final Bill” framing but mentions “For Reform but Against Final Bill” concerns. The latter is fully “For Reform but Against Final Bill” concerns, and was the more circulated story of the two.

This study shows an opportunity for media advocacy on the issues of bail and pretrial detention reform. Coverage in states where some pretrial detention reform has passed can be used to determine public support or opposition, and identify successful narratives that can be adapted to other states considering reform.

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