What is Pretrial Detention?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pretrial detention is a form of detention in which someone is kept detained in a government facility while she or he awaits legal proceedings such as a trial. People in detention are usually held in jails instead of prisons, or are held in specialized pretrial detention facilities. These prisoners are not guilty of any crime and they are not treated as offenders, although they are deprived of their freedom and usually have their activities restricted while they are in detention for security reasons.

Businessman with a briefcase
Businessman with a briefcase

There are two reasons why someone may be held in pretrial detention. The first reason is an inability to afford bail. Sometimes bail is set too high for someone to afford or a bail bondsperson will not underwrite a bond to allow someone to be free on bail. In these situations, people must remain in detention because they cannot put up the bail to be released. This reason for remaining in detention is common for many undocumented immigrants, who may have trouble contacting family members and friends to request assistance with bail.

The second reason is a denial of bail. Bail can be denied to accused prisoners for any number of reasons, ranging from concerns about their safety if they are released to a belief that the prisoner is a flight risk and will not return for legal proceedings. In these cases, the judge usually explains why the prisoner cannot be freed on bail and the prisoner's attorney may make a counter argument in an attempt to secure a release on bail.

People in pretrial detention are awaiting legal proceedings. They are periodically removed from detention for hearings and other events related to their cases, and are also taken to court for the trial itself. They also have the right to access an attorney and to meet privately. Some facilities also have law libraries which prisoners can use while researching their cases so that they can learn more about the process of law and the specifics of their own cases.

Globally, pretrial detention is a very contentious issue. In some nations, the number of people in detention awaiting legal proceedings is greater than the number of people who have have actually been convicted and sentenced to prison. Pretrial detention contributes significantly to prison overcrowding in nations where numerous people await hearings, and people can wait for years for legal proceedings to begin. Some governments have been accused of using pretrial detention to effectively imprison people indefinitely without trial.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


From what I understand, people are denied bail and forced to become detention inmates for various reasons. Like the article said, it might be to protect them or because they're a flight risk. But sometimes it's to protect the community from the accused, or if the person is standing trial for a certain crime.

For example, I know in some jurisdictions if you're accused of something like murder, you will be denied bail. This makes complete sense to me, since murder is a pretty serious crime!


@ceilingcat - So what are you suggesting? We just let everyone out on some kind of pretrial probation rather than incarcerating them? I don't know about that. Or do you think we should do away with bail altogether?

Paying bail at least gives people the incentive to show up for their trial. In most places, as long as you show up for the trial, you get your bail money back. But if you don't show, you forfeit the money. So that's a pretty good incentive to show up!

However, if we did away with bail, most people would probably run away before standing trial.


I think the whole concept of pretrial jail is very discriminatory to people of lower socioeconomic status. Most affluent people have the money and connections with which to post bail, or the ability to secure a bail bond.

However, most poor people don't have adequate resources, making them much more likely to sit in jail waiting for their trial. It can takes weeks for the proceedings to be completed, so if the person is innocent they're pretty much being punished with incarceration just because they are poor.

Even though pretrial detention facilities are supposedly "nicer" than regular jails and prisons, I'm not sure I buy that either.


Yes excellent post! This helped me generate ideals for a couple of paragraphs.


thank you for this great article. it helps with my school assignment!

Post your comments
Forgot password?