NM lawmakers scrutinize pretrial release system - Albuquerque Journal

NM lawmakers scrutinize pretrial release system

Cristopher Moore of the Santa Fe Institute watches a presentation on a TV screen while waiting to speak at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting about the Arnold Tool and pretrial release. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – Legislators turned to a computer scientist and other experts Friday as they plunged into the debate over whether New Mexico releases too many defendants who go on to commit new crimes.

They enlisted the expert help to zero in on an analytical tool considered by judges as they make decisions on whether to hold a defendant in jail and what conditions to impose if the person is released while awaiting trial.

The scrutiny focused on the Arnold Tool, which analyzes the likelihood a defendant will, if released, show up for court hearings and avoid new criminal charges.

No easy answers emerged.

“Nobody out there is very good at predicting crime,” computer scientist Cristopher Moore of the Santa Fe Institute said. “That is true of humans. That is true of algorithms.”

But Paul Guerin, director of the Center for Applied Research and Analysis at the University of New Mexico, said the Arnold Tool proved accurate during a study validating its performance in Bernalillo County. In other words, the people rated as the highest risk were the most likely to fail to appear or commit a new crime, and other methods of evaluating risk were more error prone.

“This tool – the public safety assessment – more accurately predicts failure than these other methods. … The tool is accurate,” Guerin said.

Moore and Guerin were among the experts called on during a three-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, an influential panel with the power to shape, or block, crime legislation this session.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and chairman of the committee, set the agenda, signaling that the Arnold Tool will be a focus for lawmakers as they weigh strategies for addressing crime.

He made it clear he’s skeptical of proposals favored by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some legislators to overhaul New Mexico’s pretrial law more directly to make it easier to hold more defendants in jail while they await trail.

He questioned whether the proposals – often referred to as “rebuttable presumption” bills – would violate people’s civil rights.

Cervantes suggested instead that the judiciary’s use of the Arnold Tool is in for scrutiny.

“This is a tool that’s not established in statute,” he said. “It’s not a tool we as legislators have adopted or created.”

Prosecutors and public defenders in Friday’s hearing clashed over the impact of the Arnold Tool.

Court administrators repeatedly said the tool doesn’t make a recommendation on whether to release someone. Instead, it suggests the level of supervision – such as GPS monitoring and drug tests – if a court determines release is appropriate.

Judges are trained in how to use the tool, court officials said, and they understand it isn’t a recommendation of release or detention.

But Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, acknowledged the public and others outside the criminal justice system may have a different view of the Arnold Tool.

“It is gravely misunderstood,” he said.

Lawmakers heard mixed testimony on the tool’s role in judicial decision-making.

Adolfo Mendez, special counsel for the state Attorney General’s Office, described it as influential.

“A strong indicator of whether an individual is going to be detained isn’t necessarily their history,” he said, “but which judge they’re getting and how they’re interpreting the score.”

Jonathan Ibarra, senior trial attorney for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, disputed that the Arnold Tool is decisive. Judges, he said, understand they must review each case individually – including an examination of factors outside the scope of the tool – before deciding whether to jail a defendant who hasn’t been convicted.

“Every single one of them will go contrary to the (public safety assessment) in a case where they think they need to do that – every single one of them,” Ibarra said.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he wasn’t convinced by assurances about the accuracy of the Arnold Tool.

“Our constituents in Bernalillo County are incredibly frustrated,” he said. “You can’t tell me the system is working right now.”

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