New tool helps judge decide on releasing or detaining criminals

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HOUSTON - The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council presented a data-driven assessment tool Tuesday morning that will help judges decided whether to release or detain a defendant prior to trail.

The Public Safety Assessment is a risk assessment program that uses nine factors to produce two risk scores. The first evaluates the likelihood a person will commit a new crime if released pending trial. The second predicts the likelihood the person will return for a future court hearing.

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.

“We are committed to ensuring that the Harris County Courts operate fairly, effectively, and efficiently,” Susan Brown, presiding judge of District Criminal Courts, said. “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 software also flags defendants that it calculates present an elevated risk of committing a violent crime.

Officials said PSA 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.

According to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the PSA is already being utilized in 30 jurisdictions across the county, including some of the nation's largest cities, such as Chicago, Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

The top criminal justice researchers developed the tool in a project, which used pretrial records from nearly 1.5 million cases in a total 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

According to authorities, the PSA does not use information 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,” Margaret Harris, presiding judge of County Criminal Courts, said.

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.

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