New Article: “Dangerous Defendants”

Sandra G. Mayson, Dangerous Defendants, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-30 (2016).

Bail reform is underway — but it is proceeding on shaky ground. The reform model, which deploys actuarial risk assessment to identify “high-risk” defendants, assumes that the state has the prerogative to detain or control dangerous defendants. This assumption is not new. But it is anomalous. In general, we do not permit the state to restrain sane, responsible adults solely to stop them from committing hypothetical future crimes, even those who are high-risk. The reform movement’s focus on danger thus crystallizes a fundamental question about pretrial policy: What justifies the state in restraining defendants for dangerousness before trial if we would prohibit the same restraint for equally dangerous members of the public? Although there is an extensive literature on preventive detention, neither the Supreme Court nor prior scholarship has focused on this comparative question. This Article endeavors to answer it. It makes the first effort to articulate and evaluate potential justifications for subjecting defendants to restraint that we would forbid for non-defendants who pose an equal risk. The Article explores doctrinal, deontological and instrumentalist justifications, but ultimately rejects them. It contends that pretrial restraint for dangerousness can only be justified at the risk threshold where we would authorize equivalent restraint of a member of the population at large. Communities, policymakers and courts should therefore determine what they believe this threshold to be, then ensure that pretrial risk assessment and management are tailored to it.

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