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Bernalillo County judges to implement new risk assessment

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — To better assess which criminal defendants pose the highest risk to the community and to safeguard against low-risk defendants lingering in jail while awaiting trial, judges in Bernalillo County’s district and metro courts are implementing a new risk assessment protocol.

The protocol, set to begin a trial run July 1 in both courts, ranks defendants into four categories meant to measure how likely they are to re-offend before their trial or to just not show up for trial.

Judges already do a similar risk assessment of defendants, but now they will have a uniform process across the two courts, and possibly across the state if the trial provides positive results, officials said.

“We still have judicial discretion,” said Metro Court Presiding Criminal Judge Sandra Engel. “This does not tie our hands.”

Similar assessments are already used in jurisdictions in nearly every state.

Second Judicial District Court Chief Judge Nan Nash said the local plan has been in the works for years as part of the multi-agency Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Commission, which works to streamline the criminal justice system and reduce the jail’s population.

Judges plan to use the risk assessment in conjunction with their subjective discretion in deciding the best way to release people from jail and what level of supervision to place on them while they await trial.

“This is one of the best tools available to us. It’s an evidence-based instrument,” said Nash, noting it is crucial to remember that defendants held in jail before trial are presumed innocent.

Evidence from numerous criminal justice studies in the nation show that certain factors can fairly accurately predict whether a person will come back for trial and if they will re-offend if let out of jail.

Allowing the low-risk defendants to leave jail with very low or no bond can save jurisdictions millions of dollars in jail costs without increasing the risk to the community, according to a report from the Pretrial Justice Institute and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report and others also show that low-risk defendants who are held in jail or who are released but given heavy supervision, such as drug testing or curfew and ankle monitors, are more likely to re-offend.

The longer anyone in the low-risk group stays in jail, the more likely they are to re-offend because of the work and home-life complications that incarceration creates, said Lisa Simpson, a member of criminal justice commission.

The trial run of the assessment is just one of the products of the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Review Commission.

It was state-mandated to address overpopulation at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which has been the center of a decade-long civil rights lawsuit stemming from jail crowding issues.

“We are proceeding cautiously, as we wait to see the results of the new process. Our main concern is that public safety is not compromised in any way,” said a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office.