In Allegheny County, a preliminary arraignment is a defendant’s first court appearance, during which a judge notifies the defendant of their charges and a bail determination is made. Defendants are not guaranteed legal representation at preliminary arraignments, but lack of representation can have serious consequences for fairness and equity in court proceedings, as well as a substantial impact on the jail population.
In April 2017, the Allegheny County Office of the Public Defender began a pilot project utilizing existing staff to provide legal representation for all people arraigned during business hours at Pittsburgh Municipal Court. The outcomes of the first year of the pilot are encouraging. Compared to a matched sample, people represented by public defenders at preliminary arraignments:
- Were less likely to receive cash bail
- Were less likely to be booked into the Allegheny County Jail
- Experienced less racial disproportionality in cash bail decisions and jail bookings