Data-driven tool helps Harris County judges decide to release, detain defendants before trial

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Harris County Courts announced Tuesday that it will implement the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a data-driven risk assessment tool that provides objective information that judges can use when deciding whether to release or detain a defendant prior to trial.

Developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), which is based in Houston, the PSA uses nine factors to produce two risk scores: one predicting the likelihood that an individual will commit a new crime if released pending trial, and another predicting the likelihood that he will fail to return for a future court hearing. The tool will also flag defendants that it calculates present an elevated risk of committing a violent crime. The PSA risk scores fall on a scale of one to six, with higher scores indicating a greater level of risk. This neutral, reliable data can help judges gauge the risk that a defendant poses. However, the tool does not replace the judge or impede his or her discretion or authority in any way. The decision about whether to release or detain a defendant always rests with the judge.

“We are committed to ensuring that the Harris County Courts operate fairly, effectively, and efficiently,” Hon. Susan Brown, Presiding Judge of District Criminal Courts, explained. “That’s why we have partnered with others in our community to conduct a major initiative intended to further protect public safety and safeguard citizens’ rights. The Public Safety Assessment will give us another tool to measure how much of a risk someone is to our community, so that we can take that into account when making pretrial release decisions.”

The PSA is being used, or is in the process of being implemented, in approximately 30 jurisdictions across the country, including three entire states—Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey—as well as some of the nation’s largest cities such as Chicago, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. Initial results indicate that the tool is helping to protect public safety while reducing jail populations and freeing up funds for other government priorities. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, for example, the jail population dropped nearly 20 percent, with no increase in crime, in the year after the PSA implementation began in the spring of 2014.

LJAF partnered with leading criminal justice researchers to develop the tool, which was created using the largest, most diverse set of pretrial records ever assembled—1.5 million cases from approximately 300 jurisdictions across the United States. Researchers analyzed the data and isolated factors that most often exist for defendants who commit a new crime, commit a violent crime, or fail to return to court if released before trial.

The factors are:

  • 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
  • Whether the person has previously been sentenced to incarceration.

The PSA does not use information that is considered potentially discriminatory, such as a person’s ethnic background, income, level of education, employment status, neighborhood, or any demographic or personal information other than age. The assessment is race- and gender-neutral.

“Every day our judges face questions involving pretrial bail: If this person is released from jail, will he show up to court? Will he be arrested for something else? Are there conditions we can impose to better ensure his appearance and protect the public? The Public Safety Assessment will help inform these important decisions,” explained Hon. Margaret Harris, Presiding Judge of County Criminal Courts. “We thank fellow Houstonians Laura and John Arnold for their innovative work in this area, for their commitment to making a difference in Harris County, and for entrusting us with this new tool for justice.”

The average daily jail population in Harris County is approximately 8,500 people. This costs taxpayers $75 per defendant, per day. Some of these inmates are high-risk individuals charged with violent crimes, while others may be low-level drug offenders. Some have mental health issues and cycle in and out of jail because they are not getting the treatment they need. For individuals who pose a moderate risk, the best course of action might be for them to be released with conditions such as community supervision or electronic monitoring.

“We created the Public Safety Assessment to give judges objective information that they can use to help make those determinations,” LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Matt Alsdorf explained. “We applaud the leadership of Harris County, which continues to work collaboratively to examine the criminal justice system and to implement reforms that will help to protect public safety and reduce jail populations. We believe the Public Safety Assessment will play a valuable role in this important work.”

LJAF is making the PSA available for free to Harris County and the other jurisdictions that are implementing the tool. The implementation process will begin in June, and county criminal justice leaders anticipate that they will start using the tool later this year or early next year.