After two years of testing, a formula developed for $1.2 million by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to help judges decide which pretrial defendants should be released on bail is being rolled out to 21 more jurisdictions including states like Arizona and New Jersey and cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, the New York Times reports. The algorithm gives defendants two scores, one for their likelihood of committing a crime and one for their risk of failing to appear in court, and flags those with an elevated risk of violence. In most of the U.S. there is little science behind the bail decisions made thousands of times a day.
In some places, bail is based on the charges alone; in others, courts may weigh a host of factors like criminal record, employment status and substance-abuse history. Hidden biases against the poor and minorities can creep into the decision-making process. A growing body of evidence indicates that the bail system keeps many low-risk defendants incarcerated before trial, while those who may pose a higher risk are released because they have the money to make bail. Many law enforcement groups and defense lawyers support the use of scientifically validated risk assessments, but fewer than 10 percent of jurisdictions use them, partly because of cost. The Arnold Foundation eventually plans to make the tool, called the Public Safety Assessment, available to any jurisdiction.