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Courts to implement new risk assessment tool

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Defense lawyers and prosecutors who often find themselves on the opposite sides of criminal cases have found common ground on a new pretrial procedure to be launched in Bernalillo County courts later this month.

Starting June 12, the courts will begin using a new risk assessment tool, based on a model developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, to help judges determine what should be done with suspects awaiting trial – whether they should be released on their own recognizance, released with certain conditions, or be detained. It will replace an assessment tool the courts have been using the past 18 months.

“The court, the prosecution and the public defenders have very different roles in the system, and that fundamentally is going to create some tension,” said Judge Nan Nash, Bernalillo County’s chief district court judge. “This is a tool that meets our different needs.”

Much of the Public Safety Assessment, or PSA, was developed by researchers who analyzed 1.5 million criminal cases nationwide to determine factors that weigh a defendant’s risk to the public if allowed to be free while awaiting trial.

The old assessment tool ranked all suspects on a 0-15 scale intended to show the risk the person posed to the community. The higher the score, the higher the risk.

The new system is more nuanced and breaks the scoring into three categories: the likelihood the person would commit an additional crime if released, the likelihood the person would fail to return to court for a future hearing and the person’s propensity for violence. Some defendants will be flagged as violent – but that does not necessarily mean they will be detained.

The old system faced criticism when some suspects who had been arrested up to a dozen times were repeatedly released, in part because charges that were dismissed did not factor into the score.

The new assessment does not factor in dismissed charges, either, but prosecutors, public defenders, judges and pretrial services officials all said Wednesday that they supported the new instrument.

And they predicted the courts would no longer see suspects with such extensive arrest-and-release records – as more serious cases will be adjudicated and other suspects will be placed in treatment programs or in pretrial services.

The foundation that created the instrument has been working for years to make reforms to the earliest phases of the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that keeping certain lower risk criminals in jail for long periods of time can greatly increase the person’s chance of committing additional crimes, according to foundation research summaries.

“In terms of public safety, a lot of times we think the safest course is to keep people incarcerated,” said Lisa Simpson, a member of the county’s reform team. “If you keep low and medium-risk people incarcerated for even short periods of time, you increase their risk of recidivism dramatically.”

Richard Pugh, a public defender in Albuquerque, said the public defender’s office is in favor of the new instrument because it’s objective and doesn’t take into account a person’s race, income, level of education or other potentially discriminatory factors.

Adolfo Mendez, the chief of policy and planning at the prosecutor’s office, said they’re in favor of the instrument because it gives greater weight to certain factors. For example, inmates would be severely penalized under the new procedure if arrested while they have other charges still pending.

Metro Court Chief Judge Edward Benavidez said the assessment still gives judges the discretion in deciding whether to release a suspect, but the new assessment provides more information.

In addition, both prosecutors and defense attorneys will have a chance to introduce other factors – including a history of arrests – if they disagree with the assessment’s recommendations.

Officials in Albuquerque have for years been meeting to work on jail conditions. There is a pending, decades-old lawsuit in federal court over jail conditions.

Nash said the work officials have done to make reforms to the jail and criminal justice system here is likely one of the reasons Bernalillo County was tapped to be part of the Arnold Foundation’s pretrial detention program.

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