Harris Co. judges will use tech tool to decide if they let defendants walk

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HARRIS COUNTY, TX-- As if computers weren't controlling our lives enough, now they're gonna start helping courts here decide whether to keep defendants locked up or let 'em out on bond before trial.

A roomful of judges, lawyers and cops came together Tuesday at the courthouse to announce Harris County is adopting the PSA or Public Safety Assessment tool. It will help judges decide who's in and who's out.

"We make the best decisions every day with the information that we have," explained Margaret Harris, presiding judge of the Harris County Criminal Courts, "but now we're adding something else that's gonna help us up our game."

The PSA looks at objective factors, including "the defendant's criminal history, what they're charged with now, their prior failures to appear in court," explained Matt Alsdorf of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the folks who created the tool.

It will rank defendants on a scale of 1 to 6. "6" means you're highly likely to commit a new crime if you're let out, and you probably won't show up for court. "1" means you're a pretty safe bet.

"Right now, there are people who are low-risk or moderate risk who could probably be safely supervised out of the jail," said Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson.

As taxpayers, we pay $75 a day for each person in Harris County jail, so sending a few home 'til their court date could prove a good money move.

The PSA has been used around the country, and it's reduced inmate numbers without increasing crime. "In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina," Alsdorf said, "their jail population overall dropped 20% in the first year." And as for the cost, Alsdorf explained, "There's no cost to the county."

He also assured us the PSA is not prejudicial. Race, sex, religion, education, where you live, nationality-- none of those things factor into the scores.

"From a prosecutor perspective," said Anderson, "It's gonna help us argue to the core when a dangerous person needs to be kept in. Because right now, we have no assessment for risk of violence, and this will be the first time that we'll have that."

Taking our criminal justice system to the next level... one keystroke at a time.