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DA, public safety assessment differ on release decisions

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Did this person have a pending charge when the crime was committed? Any prior convictions? Were those convictions for violent crimes? Is the current offense violent? Has he or she failed to appear to a court hearing in the past two years? Before that? Ever been sentenced to incarceration?

These are just some of the questions the Public Safety Assessment asks in order to churn out a prediction as to how likely a defendant is to commit a new crime while awaiting trial and to show up to future court dates. It also considers whether the person is at risk of committing a new violent crime while awaiting trial.

But it appears Bernalillo County prosecutors use different criteria when they consider who is dangerous enough to detain.

Figures provided by the court show that the District Attorney’s Office is only seeking detention in 21% of cases where Bernalillo County’s Public Safety Assessment recommends it. While 2,790 cases scored “detain” on the PSA between June 2017 and April 2019, the DA sought to hold only 595 of them. Court figures also show that judges are more likely to grant motions involving high-scoring defendants.

Adolfo Mendez, with the DA’s Office, offered two simple explanations. Prosecutors don’t take PSA scores into account as they decide when to file because copies of the assessments aren’t available to them in time and because the DA uses its own formula to make those calls.

The PSA only takes into account pending charges and prior convictions, while the DA’s Office policy requires prosecutors to consider records of multiple arrests, regardless of the outcome of the case.

Certain charges all but guarantee that the DA will pursue a detention motion, while the PSA only asks whether the current offense is violent. And under the policy in place at the DA’s Office, anyone with a gun “immediately accessible” at the time of the crime or arrest is a possible detention candidate, while the PSA does not take use or access to a weapon into account.

The PSA was designed by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic foundation, and implemented in Bernalillo County in June 2017. According to the foundation, the tool was developed using 750,000 cases from about 300 jurisdictions. Researchers used the data to determine which factors best predict whether a person will fail to appear or to commit a new crime while awaiting trial.

The algorithm is the same in every jurisdiction, but the recommendation regarding detention or release for each risk category is determined at the local level. Here the recommendations for each score were developed by a team made up of representatives from district and metro court, the Law Offices of the Public Defender, the District Attorney’s Office and the county.

In Bernalillo County, defendants land in one of 25 categories, the seven highest-scoring categories recommend detention if constitutional requirements are met, or release with the maximum conditions.

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