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Judges’ court tool works, UNM study finds

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur’s name.

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A heavily criticized tool used by judges in Bernalillo County to help them decide which defendants should be released and which should be held in custody pending trial is doing a good job of predicting who will commit a new crime or skip a court date if released.

That’s the conclusion reached by the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research, based on its independent study of more than 6,000 cases in the 2nd Judicial District. The reports conclude that the Public Safety Assessment, engineered by Arnold Ventures and implemented here in 2017, “provides valuable information that can inform judicial decision making.”

The assessment scores a defendant’s risk of flight or new crime by considering factors such as age, previous convictions, previous incarceration and history of skipping court dates. Each score corresponds to a locally set recommendation regarding whether the person should be detained or released. If release is recommended, the assessment also recommends how closely a defendant should be supervised.

“This evaluation shows that the … Public Safety Assessment is doing what it was intended to do, which is be an accurate predictor of the risk of new criminal activity and failures to appear,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, chairwoman of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. “And that has proven to be true.”

The Institute for Social Research found that the higher the risk score a defendant received, the more likely that defendant was to fail to appear or commit a new crime. Overall, 18.5% of cases the group examined saw a failure to appear, 17.2% saw new criminal activity, and 4% saw new violent criminal activity. When a defendant did face new charges while awaiting trial, it was primarily for a lower or equivalent level crime as the original case.

The study also notes that people charged with drug, property and public order offenses had the highest rates of failure. And judges were also more likely to grant motions filed in cases where a defendant scored higher on the PSA.

Adhering to the PSA’s recommendation regarding detention or the level of court-ordered supervision “will likely improve the (failure to appear) and (new criminal activity) rates for assessed cases,” the ISR reported.

The District Attorney’s Office has said it uses its own criteria and not the PSA to determine when to ask the court to keep a defendant in jail. Office policy dictates that prosecutors seek to detain when a person is facing certain charges. Use of a gun in the crime and arrest record are also taken into account – factors not considered by the PSA.

The study suggests that the DAs criteria for requesting detention is not predictive of whether a defendant will reoffend while awaiting trial or will fail to show up to court.

The DA’s office declined to comment for this story.

“Albuquerque certainly has a crime problem, but this report shows that it is not caused by people released from jail while they wait for trial. About 96 percent of the people are not committing new violent crime,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said in an emailed statement. “Blaming the pretrial release system for our crime problems actually distracts us from finding real solutions.”

Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.


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