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Harris County's Got a New Tool to Decide Who Should Go Home or Stay in Jail

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There's a good chance that one of the first things you will do if you get arrested in Harris County is sit down for an interview with Harris County Pretrial Services.

They'll ask you things like, who do you live with? Where do you work? What's your landline telephone number? You get points for your answers, depending on what they are, and the interviewer, also referencing your criminal record, will add them up to determine what kind of risk you pose to public safety and whether it's likely you will fail to come to court. He or she will turn over that risk assessment to the magistrate, who will decide at your bail hearing whether or not she is going to trust you to go home to your family on a personal bond while you wait for a court date.

And way more often than not they're not going to trust you. Although the judges' main consideration is public safety, just over half of the pretrial population has not been charged with a violent crime or non-serious felony, yet only roughly 7 percent of people get a personal bond. In the other 93 percent of cases, they'll generally choose to set your bail according to a bail schedule that a lawsuit recently filed against the county calls unconstitutional.

As Administrative Judge Susan Brown has put it, judges rarely ever give someone a personal bond because they just haven't trusted the county's current risk-assessment tool, which was last updated in 2007.  That's why criminal justice officials announced yesterday that they will be adopting a new one, which is supposed to finally help judges and magistrates better decide who should go to home and who should stay in jail while their case is being adjudicated — before they've been convicted of a crime.

“We recognize our decisions have far-reaching implications," Brown said, "both on the person who stands before us but also for the public and for their safety—and we also need to ensure taxpayers' dollars are being spent wisely. All judges want to make the very best decision we can possibly make for each defendant, and this is another tool in our toolbox to help us make those decisions."

The new tool, developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, will not involve any interview at all. It will rely exclusively on objective information, including prior convictions, prior failures-to-appear in court, age, and whether your current charge is violent. It will not include anything about your race, gender, income, education, neighborhood, drug-use history, family structure, marital status, or your job — subjective factors that may end up influencing a judge's decision to deny you a personal bond. And according to Harris County Pretrial Services Director Dennis Potts, some of those factors are currently included on the county's current risk-assessment tool.

Matt Alsdorf, vice president of criminal justice with the Arnold Foundation, said that asking what neighborhood you live in or how you are employed—two things included on the county's current tool—may even harbor class or racial bias against you if you live in a crime-ridden area or haven't been able to find a job.  Potts said even your gender (if you're a guy, you lose points), factors into the current risk assessment when it shouldn't. Plus, given the current tool is relatively outdated, (landlines? seriously, who has a landline anymore), criminal justice officials said they decided to seek out the Foundation for an upgrade.

Part of the reason they picked it is because, as Alsdorf said, it was developed based on data on over one million defendants across the country. The Foundation sought to weigh the most factors that most accurately predicted the risk someone posed both to reoffend, especially to commit a violent crime, or to blow off court. Alsdorf said they found that all those subjective factors, and especially race and gender, were not any more predictable of that risk than simply the objective factors found in someone’s criminal record already. About 30 jurisdictions across the country—including three entire states: Kentucky, Arizona and New Jersey—are using this new tool.

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Gene Locke said he hoped this would eliminate the human fallibility that comes with subjective risk assessments.

"No longer will poverty or race or other factors be driving an assessment insidiously and invisibly," he said. "Now we have a race and class neutral that will allow judges assess fairly whether or not they should stay in jail." 

However, just because the risk-assessment tool may ultimately consider someone low risk and recommend them for a personal bond, that's not to say a magistrate or judge won't disregard that and still decide to deny the bond; the ultimate decision still lies with them. Currently, it appears that magistrates ignore the recommendation of Pretrial Services risk assessments quite often. According to Pretrial Services's 2014 annual report, magistrates at those initial bail hearings ignored a recommendation for a personal bond for people charged with misdemeanors 64 percent of the time—affecting over 9,000 defendants—and ignored it 98.3 percent of the time for people charged with felonies, affecting nearly 4,000 people. Maybe they lost their jobs, their scholarships, their homes, or, like this guy, were beaten to death in a holding cell. 

Given the new risk-assessment tool — and given the fact that the county is being sued over its current bail system — maybe that will change.

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