Arnold Foundation Launches Expansion of Public Safety Assessment Tool

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How many of the 12 million Americans arrested each year should be held in detention before trial to prevent them from being a danger to themselves or others?

The question is critical to today’s efforts aimed at reforming a justice system that has disproportionally trapped the poorest Americans— most of them from minority populations—in a cycle of incarceration and despair that has upended lives and entire communities.

In an ambitious attempt to test whether new science-based tools can help judges weigh the risks of releasing defendants before their cases are heard, 10 jurisdictions around the country will be chosen in September to participate in an intensive program to test and implement an updated Public Safety Assessment (PSA) instrument developed by researchers at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

An additional 200 jurisdictions will be invited to participate in an information-sharing network that utilizes best practices and research derived from the PSA’s use in over 40 states, counties and cities since it was first developed in 2011, the foundation announced Wednesday.

Jeremy Travis

Jeremy Travis

“The development of the PSA was a landmark moment in the field,” Jeremy Travis, the Arnold Foundation’s executive vice president of criminal justice, said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “But now we are in a second landmark moment.”

“It is time to evolve the PSA in response to new science and the valuable insights of the pretrial reform community.”

The Foundation has also issued Request for Proposals to train judges, prosecutors and other officials to implement the risk assessment tool, and to conduct“robust” research and evaluation of its effectiveness over the five-year period of the program.

Initial evaluations of the tool, which uses nine separate factors to produce scores that predict whether an individual will commit a new crime if released before trial, and whether he or she will fail to return for a scheduled court hearing, have been mixed.

One study of the tool’s effectiveness in Kentucky, which became the first state to use it in 2013, found the PSA to have “predictive validity,” but some researchers have charged that it is susceptible to racial and gender bias.

“We’re very attentive (to these criticisms),” Travis told The Crime Report in an interview, but he noted that researchers would continue to test and improve the risk assessment measurements as they were being implemented in the jurisdictions chosen to participate in the program.

He said the expanded program represents an effort to make the participating jurisdictions—which will be chosen to reflect geographical, ethnic and economic diversity—“learning laboratories for the rest of the country.”

Part of the anticipated research agenda for the program will address how the PSA controls for racial disparities.

Pretrial risk assessment tools have been in use in the US since the 1960s, but most have been developed by individual counties based on their specific circumstances, and many depend on interviews with defendants. The PSA uses statistical data based on pretrial records of 1.5 million cases from 300 U.S. jurisdictions to develop an empirical and impartial basis for gauging an individual’s likelihood of failing to appear, or to commit a new crime.

The PSA has been gaining traction among many judges who call it a valuable way of checking or challenging the intuitive “hunches” that otherwise determine how they will rule on the thousands of defendants they may see in a week or a month.

“It’s important to understand that it’s just a tool, and that judges are the definitive answer,” one judge cautioned in a  research paper supported by the Foundation that examined how judges have been using the tool so far.

Nevertheless, a large body of scholars believe that some form of standardized assessment of risk is crucial to reforming the current bail bond system.

“Bail reform is much bigger than risk assessment,” said Travis, former president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a leading scholar on prisoner re-entry.

But he added that the development of a viable, evidence-based tool for risk assessment was “essential” to efforts already underway to modernize or reevaluate the bail system.

New Jersey, one of the state jurisdictions involved in the original rollout of the PSA, has introduced a number of reforms in its pretrial system, including abolishing cash bail—making it the only state to win an “A” grade in the Pretrial Justice Institute’s assessment of state pretrial justice systems. It also recorded a 20 percent reduction in the number of pretrial detainees last year.

As one sign of the growing nationwide interest, Travis said over 600 jurisdictions around the country have contacted Foundation researchers expressing interest in implementing—or learning more about—the PSA.

The third tier of the Arnold Foundation program will create a national “web-based hub of knowledge, training and implementation guidance” that will be available to a wider audience around the country—including journalists, advocates, researchers, judges, public defenders and interested citizens, with the aim of developing broader public support for pretrial justice reform.

The program’s research team will “offer resources to any jurisdiction that wants to implement the PSA and will connect communities so they may learn from one another,” the announcement said.