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Pretrial assessment programs do not appear to capture actual risk

| Aug 21, 2019 | Criminal Defense

In America today, the large majority of people being held in local jails have not been convicted of any crime. Instead, they are being held in pretrial detention. That means they have either been denied bail or have been assigned a bail amount that they cannot afford.

Indeed, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the median average bail for a felony is $10,000. For the average person who cannot afford their bail, that equates to eight months’ income.

Bail is meant to serve two purposes in the criminal justice system. First, it is to ensure that defendants appear at their trial dates. Second, it is to dissuade defendants from committing further crimes while awaiting trial. Since most courts do not set bail based on the defendant’s ability to pay, our cash bail system effectively results in wealthier defendants being released before trial and poorer ones remaining behind bars.

Being held for months in jail before trial is incredibly destructive to a person who is legally presumed innocent. The defendant often loses their job and housing and may even find their child custody rights under attack. Pretrial detention has such a destructive effect that it causes many people to plead guilty simply to gain release.

Since this destruction is borne mostly by the poor and people of color, many court systems around the country have been reconsidering how bail is determined. Many are trying to make the process fairer and less racist is to evaluate the actual likelihood that a given defendant will reoffend or skip court. One way they are doing this is by using computer-generated assessments. But are these assessments resulting in more people being given affordable bail?

Evaluation of Chicago’s Public Safety Assessment

In Cook County, Illinois, the courts use a computer assessment program called the Public Safety Assessment, or PSA. Although judges consider multiple factors when determining whether to release a defendant before trial, they place substantial weight on the PSA’s evaluation.

Unfortunately, new data indicate that the tool has not actually reduced pretrial detention. Moreover, it seems to overestimate the risk that someone will abscond or reoffend.

In 2015, when Cook County adopted the PSA, 90% of all defendants were detained before trial. The PSA was adopted in part to reduce that percentage.

The PSA assigns a risk score to each defendant, ranging from lowest to highest. This is presumably based upon demographics, the seriousness of the current offense, and the defendant’s prior criminal history.

People labeled low risk are typically released without any conditions. People labeled high risk may be denied bail altogether. In the middle, the court may assign bail and/or pretrial supervision.

The PSA did reduce the number of low-risk defendants who were required to pay bail in order to be released. Overall, however, pretrial detention rates did not change substantially. The decrease in detention of low-risk defendants was largely offset by an increase in detention for those deemed higher risk.

But was that because the tool had accurately assessed their risk? Apparently not. As it turns out, the actual risk that any defendant in Cook County will commit a new crime if released is less than 1%. That includes people accused of violent crimes and weapons violations, who are considered the most likely to reoffend.

That likely means that many people are being held in pretrial detention despite posing virtually no risk of reoffending or absconding. And, the effect may be far broader than Cook County. The manufacturer of the PSA says it is used in over 40 jurisdictions nationwide.

If you have been charged with a crime in the Erie area, please contact the Quinn Law Firm at 814-806-2518 and speak to one of our criminal defense attorneys. There is no cost for the initial consultation.