The Bannock County Adult Probation and Pretrial Department is unveiling a new pretrial risk assessment in an effort to safely reduce the number of people awaiting disposition in jail.
Beginning Jan. 3, 2023, the Bannock County Adult Probation and Pretrial Department will use the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) to assess people charged with a crime. The information gathered from the assessment will be provided to arraignment judges to help them determine if the defendant may be successfully released pretrial and, if so, under what conditions.
Evie McCurry, Director of Bannock County Adult Probation and Pretrial, has been leading this effort, which she said is meant to help increase community safety and promote a more fair justice system by providing judges with objective information about the defendant’s likelihood of succeeding on pretrial release.
“Research shows that low-risk, nonviolent defendants who can’t afford to post bond often stay in jail for extended periods of time, while high-risk offenders are released. During the pretrial phase of a case, we want to see community protection, court appearances, and the defendant’s rights intact,” McCurry said.
The PSA is an evidenced-based assessment that provides judges a score based on a defendant’s past criminal history and failure to appear rates, which they can use to determine whether to release or detain people following an arrest while they await trial. The assessment predicts a person’s likelihood of failing to appear in court or remaining arrest-free while on pretrial release.
The PSA, developed by Arnold Ventures LLC, is used by judicial districts in Iowa, Arizona, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New Mexico. A two-year study of Bernalillo County, New Mexico, found that most people assessed with the PSA are successful, with more than 80 percent of people appearing for court as required and avoiding new criminal charges while on pretrial release.
WHY IT’S NEEDED
The current process for deciding to release or detain someone has yielded less than a 40% success rate, McCurry said.
Typically, a Pretrial Officer will interview a person charged with a crime and provide that information to the judge to consider when deciding bail. The interview covers questions about the person’s community ties, living situation, and work history, all of which McCurry said have nothing to do with a person’s likelihood of attending court hearings or remaining arrest-free.
“An individual’s race, ethnic background, gender, or economic status has no bearing on whether they will succeed or fail while on pretrial supervision,” McCurry said.
The PSA removes demographic information from the assessment and focuses solely on a person’s criminal history, violence history, and if they’ve missed court appearances before.
“Now, when we provide this information to the judges, they’ll have an actual evidence-based score that predicts the offender’s likelihood to succeed,” McCurry said.
Bannock County and 6th District arraignment judges voted unanimously to support this project.
“Every judge in the Sixth District strives to condition release in criminal cases, balancing the need to protect society with assurances of defendant appearances at future hearings,” said Sixth District Magistrate Judge Aaron N. Thompson.
“Personally, I’m very excited about the implementation of the PSA. It will give every judge a science-based tool to use in this critical decision-making process. Not only does it give judges more information to make better bail and release decisions, but it also will allow for our district pretrial services staff to be more efficiently used. Although judges maintain discretion to deviate from the PSA recommendations, this added information will provide better insight, effective release conditions, and improved resource allocation. I see this resource as another tool in our never-ending quest to introspect and self-improve.”
HOW IT WORKS
The PSA uses nine factors to generate a score that predicts the success rate of three outcomes: appearance at all scheduled court hearings, remaining free of new charges while on pretrial release, and remaining free of new violent criminal charges while on pretrial release.
The factors used to generate a score include age at current arrest, current violent offense, pending charge at the time of arrest, prior misdemeanor and/or felony convictions, prior violent conviction, prior failure to appear in court, and prior sentence to incarceration.
Each factor is assigned to a point system according to the strength of its relationship with the specific pretrial outcome. For example, if the individual failed to appear during the pretrial process more than two times in the past two years, they would receive four points for that PSA factor.
The points are totaled and converted into three scores: New Criminal Arrest, New Violent Criminal Arrest, and Failure to Appear. Lower scores indicate a greater likelihood of pretrial success, therefore suggesting to the presiding judge that a lower Pretrial Release Level may be appropriate.
“Ultimately, the judges have discretion in deciding someone’s bond or release; this will just provide them with a report from an evidence-based tool to help make their decision,” McCurry said.
Bannock County has four Pretrial Release Levels, all of which must meet Idaho’s Mandatory Statutory Conditions.
Offenders whose score is eligible for the lowest Pretrial Release Level would be recommended to receive court date notifications. Those assigned to the highest Pretrial Release Level would be recommended to receive court date notifications, monthly criminal history checks, weekly in-person check-ins with their Pretrial Officer, and any other court-ordered conditions, such as drug testing or medication management.
A history of violent activity automatically increases a person’s risk by one level. McCurry worked with the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office to determine what constitutes a violent offense.
In all cases, regardless of the individual’s score, the presiding judge can decide to detain the offender during their pretrial period.
“Our goal with implementing the Public Safety Assessment is to provide an opportunity for an increase in court appearances and community protection. Giving judges reliable data to use along with their professional judgment is a genuine upgrade from our current process,” McCurry said.
BENEFITS TO THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
McCurry has three goals in mind as she implements the PSA: to get the PSA validated in Bannock County, decrease recidivism rates, and safely lower the jail population.
McCurry had guidance from the Idaho Supreme Court in implementing the PSA and is working to document the first 18 months of data related to its use in order to validate the PSA in Bannock County.
McCurry hopes that by validating the PSA in Bannock County, other counties and jurisdictions in Idaho may be inspired to follow suit. Bannock County is the only county in the 6th District Judicial District using the PSA.
Before implementing the new system, McCurry researched other pretrial screening tools, including the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment, the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool, and the Idaho Pretrial Risk Assessment, which Ada County currently uses. Ultimately, McCurry found the PSA to be nationally validated, the fairest, most effective, and safest option for Bannock County.
McCurry hopes the new system will help decrease the population housed in the Bannock County Detention Center, which has been dealing with overcrowding issues for years.
Lyle Thurgood, Captain of the Bannock County Sheriff’s Detention Division, said the Detention Center is seeing an increasing level of care needed for inmates due to a rise in the number of people being held on felony charges for hard drugs and an increase in mental health problems.
Thurgood said he’s hopeful that the PSA will help manage the jail population and avoid overcrowding, allowing more time to provide care to those in custody.
“On average, two-thirds of the people in our jail are waiting for their trial, which is pretty standard across the country. We’ve calculated that the cost for an individual to sit in jail is about $85 a day. That adds up when you’re talking about 200 to 300 people,” Thurgood said.
Aside from the cost savings to the County, reducing the number of people going to jail can also improve recidivism rates.
Research shows that being held in custody while awaiting a trial result may increase the likelihood that a person is charged with a new crime in the future, especially when the individual is low-risk.
A study by U.S. Courts Social Science Analyst Christopher Lowenkamp found that detaining a person in jail for even one day before they have been found guilty or innocent can have lasting effects on that person’s life and does not guarantee the safeguards most people assume detention provides.
Utilizing the PSA to evaluate offenders also reduces the chance of inequities in the criminal justice system because it does not use demographic information. All studies to date show that the PSA does not exacerbate racial disparities.
In July 2022, McCurry and her team began testing PSAs on everyone booked into the Bannock County Detention Center to determine the difference between what the PSA recommends and what is happening at arraignment.
“We’re seeing a pattern of defendants who sit on higher bonds with a high likelihood of succeeding in the community. They’re low-risk based on their criminal history, but they’re sitting in jail on these bonds they can’t afford,” McCurry said.
McCurry emphasized that it could take 18 to 24 months to see the effects of the new pretrial system.
“We have to remember that there is no assessment on the planet that can predict human behavior. But when we look at the bigger picture, I think this will have a real positive impact on our community,” McCurry said.
Commissioner Jeff Hough has been supportive of McCurry’s efforts.
“I’m excited that Evie and her team are helping Bannock County take a leadership role in the State with the PSA program. This program has the potential to have a positive generational effect on the lives of individuals and their families,” Hough said.