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New Research: Meeting with a Lawyer Shortly After Arrest Leads to Less Jail Time and Better Case Outcomes

Santa Clara County, CA, June 6, 2023 — Pretrial detention is time spent in jail after a person is arrested, but before their arraignment or trial. This detention can create legal, social, and economic costs, especially for people who can’t afford bail or to hire a lawyer to help secure an earlier release. Public defenders can provide legal representation, but they generally do not meet with their clients until the day of their arraignment, at which point the client may have been detained for several days. A public defender typically has only a few minutes to meet a client before appearing in front of a judge, and they are often representing many new clients at a single arraignment session.

To provide a more equitable pretrial experience, the County of Santa Clara Public Defender’s Office started a program to provide earlier legal representation to low-income people. Through the Pre-Arraignment Representation and Review (PARR) program, individuals charged with an eligible felony or misdemeanor domestic violence charge meet with a public defender shortly after their arrest (typically within 48 hours), instead of waiting until their first arraignment. By meeting with clients earlier in the process, PARR attorneys can advocate for their client’s release from jail, collect evidence in support of their case, and connect with family members, service providers, and community members to help meet the client’s needs.

In a new policy brief and National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, researchers from the nonpartisan California Policy Lab (CPL) show that clients who participated in a pilot of PARR in early 2020 had dramatically better outcomes than similarly situated people who did not have the opportunity to participate. During the pilot, PARR was only offered on one (rotating) day per week, which allowed the researchers to compare outcomes for PARR participants to a control group of similarly situated individuals who did not participate. The pilot ran from January 2020 through March 2020. Since then, the PARR team has grown and now serves about 30% of felony cases in the public defender’s office each year.

Key findings:
• Arrested individuals who received PARR services were detained in jail (pre or post trial), on average, for 23 fewer days relative to comparable people who did not receive PARR services (6 days vs. 29 days). This reduction in days reflects both reductions in pretrial detention, as well as potential reductions in the probability and length of incarceration imposed at sentencing.
• Receiving PARR services reduced the probability that an individual was convicted by about 75% relative to comparable defendants whom PARR did not serve.
• PARR participants were 132% more likely to see their cases dismissed by the prosecution than non-PARR participants.

During the pilot period, eligible individuals booked on designated PARR days could meet with a PARR attorney after their arrest, usually within 48 hours. Individuals who were eligible for PARR, but who were booked on non-PARR days could either meet with a public defender for the first time at their arraignment or try to hire a private lawyer. The PARR attorneys were not able to meet with all eligible individuals booked on PARR days. Of the 600 defendants booked during the pilot period who the authors estimated would have been eligible for PARR, 101 were booked on PARR days, and 40 received PARR services.

“We launched PARR because we knew that people without money to pay bail or consult with a lawyer before their first court appearance were less likely to secure a pretrial release from jail,” explains Charles Hendrickson, Assistant Public Defender at the County of Santa Clara Public Defender’s Office. “We expected to see an impact but were surprised to see such big differences both in pretrial releases and case outcomes. We hope this program and these research results will spark larger conversations about the need to provide legal representation earlier during pretrial detention and the positive difference it makes in people’s lives.”

“These differences are striking, and they were all statistically significant,” adds Johanna Lacoe, a co-author of the policy brief and Research Director at the California Policy Lab. “The program had demonstrable, positive impacts for pilot participants. They had earlier releases, a much lower likelihood of being convicted, and a much higher likelihood of seeing their case dismissed by the District Attorney’s Office. We look forward to continuing our research to explore the mechanisms that make this program so effective.”

State legislation on pretrial representation: Assembly Bill 1209, introduced during the 2023 legislative session by Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D- Los Angeles), would mandate legal representation shortly after a person was arrested and booked. It also would require that defendants hear about consequences and rights before accepting a plea deal, and would allow a court to vacate a plea deal that was taken without advisal of counsel. However, the bill was held in the Appropriations Committee.

Background on the research
This research was made possible through funding from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). In its pilot phase from January 3, 2020, to March 13, 2020, PARR did not have capacity to serve all eligible defendants. Therefore, the PARR unit provided services only for individuals booked on one day of the week and rotated that day across weeks. This rotating schedule made access to PARR effectively random across individuals arrested on different days of the week. The researchers used the rotating schedule to estimate the causal impact of the program on release and case outcomes, including pretrial release, time to release, plea bargaining, and conviction. The “days detained in jail” outcome includes days spent in jail as part of pretrial detention as well as days spent in jail as part of incarceration imposed at sentencing. The reduction in days for PARR participants reflects both reductions in pretrial detention, as well as potential reductions in the probability and length of incarceration imposed at sentencing. Despite the small sample size, the research team ran multiple tests that validate the statistical significance of the findings, all of which are shared in greater detail in the NBER working paper

Note: The NBER Working Paper: The Effect of Pre-Arraignment Legal Representation on Criminal Case Outcomes provides more in-depth details on the PARR pilot and research methodology.


The California Policy Lab translates research insights into government impact. Through hands-on partnerships with government agencies, CPL performs rigorous research across issue silos and builds the data infrastructure necessary to improve programs and policies that millions of Californians rely on every day.

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