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New Assessment Tool Helps Judges Decide Whether To Release Or Detain Defendants

Harris County courts will soon use a data-driven risk assessment tool to help judges gauge the risk a defendant poses.

Judge Susan Brown talks about new Public Safety Assessment tool
Judge Susan Brown talks about new Public Safety Assessment tool

The Public Safety Assessment software uses nine factors to help predict the likelihood that an individual will commit a new crime if released pending trial.

Judge Susan Brown welcomes the tool that can help judges make their decision; although, it doesn’t control his or her decision.

“Obviously, dangerous people need to stay locked up,” Brown said. “Pretrial release or detention should be based on the risk that that individual poses to our community.”

Matt Alsdorf is with the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which developed the software.

“There’s actually a fairly limited set of factors that is highly predictive of those outcomes,” Alsdorf said. “And frankly, it’s the factors that you would expect, right? It has to do with the defendant’s criminal history, what they’re charged with now, their prior failures to appear in court — those sorts of things.”

Other factors include whether the current offense is violent and prior misdemeanors and felony convictions.

“Clients who stay in custody are more likely to plead guilty, more likely to be found guilty, more likely to get a custody sentence and more likely to get longer sentences. People lose jobs. They miss school. They lose their children. They lose loved ones,” said Alex Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender.

The software could help reduce the average daily jail population in Harris County from its current 8,500, which costs taxpayers $75 per defendant, per day.

 

According to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the tool produces two risk scores between 1-6, the greater the number, the higher level of risk.

The risk scores include:

  1. Predicting the likelihood that an individual will commit a new crime if released pending trial
  2. Predicting the likelihood that he will fail to return for a future court hearing

The nine factors that determine the two risk scores are:

  1. Whether the current offense is violent
  2. Whether the person has a pending charge at the time of arrest
  3. Whether the person has a prior misdemeanor conviction
  4. Whether the person has a prior felony conviction
  5. Whether the person has a prior conviction for a violent crime
  6. The person's age at the time of arrest
  7. Whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing in the last two years
  8. Whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing more than two years ago
  9. Whether the person has previously been sentenced to incarceration

 

Editor’s Correction: The article has been corrected to reflect the correct name. A previous version said Max instead of Matt Alsdorf.

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