The most important decisions made during the pretrial phase pertain to whether a defendant will be detained or released before trial. Many defendants are low-risk individuals who, if released before trial, are highly unlikely to commit other crimes and are likely to return to court. Others present moderate risks and can often be managed in the community through supervision, monitoring, or other interventions. There is, of course, a small group of defendants who should most often be detained because they pose significant risks of committing acts of violence, committing additional crimes, or skipping court. The key, then, is to make sure that we accurately distinguish among the low-, moderate-, and high-risk defendants, and identify those who are at an elevated risk for violence.
Currently, only about 10 percent of courts use evidence-based risk-assessment instruments to help them decide whether to release, supervise, or detain defendants. In order to address this issue, LJAF developed the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a pretrial risk-assessment tool that is designed to assist judges in making release/detention determinations.
The PSA was created using a database of over 1.5 million cases drawn from more than 300 U.S. jurisdictions. We analyzed the data to identify the factors that are the best predictors of whether a defendant will commit a new crime, commit a new violent crime, or fail to return to court. These factors include whether the current offense is violent; whether the person has a pending charge at the time of arrest; whether the person has a prior misdemeanor conviction; whether the person has a prior felony conviction; whether the person has a prior conviction for a violent crime; the person’s age at the time of arrest; whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing in the last two years; whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing more than two years ago; and whether the person has previously been sentenced to incarceration. The PSA does not consider factors that could be discriminatory such as race, gender, level of education, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood. The PSA is more objective, far less expensive, and requires fewer resources to administer than previous techniques. And because it was developed and validated using data from diverse jurisdictions from across the country, it can be used anywhere in the United States. It is currently being used in 29 jurisdictions, including three entire states—Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey—as well as three of the largest cities and two of the largest jail systems.
In addition, the PSA is now being used to assist prosecutors in making important decisions in the pretrial phase, including those related to charge, plea bargain, and diversion. And it is helping to guide their recommendations to courts regarding pretrial detention, release, bail, and supervision. Until now, there have been no such objective, evidence-based risk-assessment tools to aid prosecutors in these recommendations and decisions.
LJAF believes the PSA can also help law enforcement officers differentiate among high-risk individuals who should be detained and low-risk individuals who can simply be issued a citation. However, additional research in this area is sorely needed. We have partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police on a multi-year effort to study current citation practices and to gather data that will allow us to expand the PSA for use in law enforcement.
Finally, LJAF is developing and evaluating specialized risk assessments that may help predict repeat incidents of domestic violence, sex crimes, and driving under the influence.
We are commissioning extensive, third-party research studies on the PSA to measure its impact. Jurisdictions interested in the PSA can request more information by emailing VBersch@arnoldfoundation.org.
Susan Brown, Presiding Judge of District Criminal Courts in Harris Co., TX, explains how judges will use the PSA to help them make decisions about whether to release or detain defendants based on the risk they pose to the community. Judge Brown’s remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Margaret Harris, Presiding Judge of County Criminal Courts in Harris Co., TX, describes what judges take into consideration as they decide whether to release or detain a defendant and how the PSA will provide judges with more information. Judge Harris’ remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Devon Anderson, District Attorney in Harris Co., TX, explains that the PSA will help to protect citizens’ rights and improve public safety because judges will be better equipped to identify high-risk defendants who should remain in jail before trial even when they have the financial means to post bail. Ms. Anderson’s remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Alex Bunin, Public Defender in Harris Co., TX, explains that the PSA will help judges identify low-risk defendants who can be safely released before trial, thereby reducing the negative consequences for individuals and society that occur when a defendant is needlessly detained. Mr. Bunin’s remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Gene Locke, Commissioner in Harris Co., TX, explains that the PSA will increase fairness in the local criminal justice system and will benefit the entire community by helping to safely reduce the jail population. Commissioner Locke’s remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Matt Alsdorf, Vice President of Criminal Justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, explains that the PSA is a race- and gender-neutral tool developed using rigorous research and evidence. Mr. Alsdorf’s remarks were delivered during a press conference on May 24, 2016.
Regan Miller, the Chief District Court Judge in Mecklenburg Co., NC, says the PSA gives him greater confidence that he is treating each defendant fairly. His comments were recorded in June 2015.
Andrew Murray, the District Attorney in Mecklenburg Co., NC, explains that the PSA is helping to ensure that people who are a danger to the community are detained, while low-level offenders and those who pose little risk to society are safely released. His comments were recorded in June 2015.
Kevin Tully, the Public Defender in Mecklenburg Co., NC, says the PSA is an important aspect of the community’s pretrial reform efforts. His comments were recorded in June 2015.
David Tapp, a Circuit Court Judge in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, explains that the PSA does not take into account factors that could be discriminatory. His comments were recorded in June 2015.
Karen Thomas, a District Court Judge in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, says the PSA provides objective information that allows her to make release and detention decisions based on more than just her own gut instinct. Her comments were recorded in June 2015.
Tara Klute, the General Manager of Pretrial Services for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, says the PSA is the most predictive tool ever used in the Commonwealth. Her comments were recorded in June 2015.
Kristie Wooley, a Pretrial Supervisor in Pinal County, AZ, says the PSA gives judges more information to help them make effective decisions. Her comments were recorded in June 2015.