By Matt Keyser
A series of studies across three U.S. counties looked at whether a tool providing prosecutors and judges with research-based information about a defendant’s past is helping to lead to fairer release decisions.
The counties studied used a pretrial assessment known as the Public Safety Assessment, which weighs factors such as prior convictions, court appearance history, and prior violent convictions to give decision makers a sense of a defendant’s needs, and whether the defendant would present a harm to people in their community if released (the large majority of defendants do not).
Drawing on that information, judges then rely on their local and state policies to make release decisions, including whether conditions such as pretrial supervision or substance use testing would help increase a defendant’s chance of success upon release.
The three studies examined the performance and impact of the Public Safety Assessment in:
(Click on the name of each county to read the findings there.)
The PSA is performing well across all three sites
A validation study assesses whether the PSA’s scores accurately predict the success of released individuals to appear in court or refrain from criminal activity pretrial. If the tool is working well, people with lower scores should typically be more successful compared to those who received higher scores.
While the PSA was found to be overall valid—meaning it’s predicting well—there were some weaknesses. Additional analyses found that FTA is one of the weakest scales, with less accurate predictions of failure to appear for higher scores.
After the PSA was implemented, jail bookings decreased in Lucas County
The Lucas County study found that over a six-year period the number of people booked in jail before trial fell by 24 percent—from 7,865 bookings in 2012 to 5,952 in 2018.
However, release rates in Lucas County also decreased over that period from 86 percent to 80 percent. Despite the decline, the county’s release rates remain significantly higher than the national average of 65 percent. The research shows that PSA wasn’t a factor in the decrease.
Across the sites, the PSA is predicting equally well across race and gender
The three reports assessed whether the PSA was showing predictive bias by race and gender. Researchers were looking to ensure there are equal probabilities of experiencing the pretrial outcomes across race and gender subgroups for any score. Overall, the studies found weak or no evidence of bias in the NCA and NVCA by race or gender. However, some analyses found evidence for racial and gender differences in the FTA scale.
For example, Lucas County found that Black individuals with higher scores have higher rates of success in showing up for court compared to non-Black individuals with the same scores. For gender, the analysis in Lucas County found that females have lower rates of success compared to males with the same scores.
In Harris and McLean counties, the studies found inconclusive evidence of gender or racial bias. In Lucas County, there was little-to-no evidence of bias in predicting if a defendant would commit a new crime during release.
Research is key
Across the studies, researchers highlighted the importance of regularly validating instruments like the PSA on a local level with county-specific data. They note the PSA should be regularly checked to ensure that race and gender bias isn’t exacerbated.
Importance to reform efforts
The PSA is simply one of the many puzzle pieces of pretrial reform. Jurisdictions must implement a suite of policies to address the unique needs of individuals, diligently prioritize fair and just processes, and strive to maximize successful opportunities.
Assessing the impact of pretrial reforms that help move jurisdictions away from relying on cash bail is critically important. Defendants’ release from jail before trial has historically hinged on their ability to afford cash bail, which has created a system in which those without money are disproportionately detained, while those who can afford bail are released.
That has grave consequences for those who don’t have the ability to pay, including loss of income or damage to relationships and community ties. As is true of the entire criminal justice system, there are significant racial disparities in pretrial detention, with people of color disproportionally brought into the system—often as the result of over-policing communities of color—and then disproportionately detained and given higher bail amounts than their white counterparts.
While proponents of cash bail have argued it’s necessary to maintain law and order, the truth is, research shows the majority of individuals who are released before trial with no cash bail requirement successfully appear in court and do not commit new crimes.