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Report: Risk Assessment Tools not Effective, Especially When not Used

by Kevin Bliss

Risk assessment tools are not effectively reducing pretrial detention or prejudicial profiling practices in determining bail. In addition, few counties concern themselves with the effectiveness of such programs, not even bothering to monitor their results.

Two organizations looking to make the government more transparent, Media Mobilizing Project and Mediajustice, have collected information from more than 1,000 counties across 46 of the country’s states and the District of Columbia. They have built the database dubbed Mapping Pretrial Injustice (“MPI”). It was released in February 2020, along with video of in-depth interviews with 56 pretrial service agencies and detention officials. The video alleges that these tools are rarely monitored to compare with their intended goal of increasing pretrial release and decreasing missed court appearances and recidivism.

Arnold Ventures created a Public Safety Assessment to use for bail evaluation in 2012. Its intended goal is to reduce inherent biases that come into play when human judges make decisions and identify candidates for bondless pretrial release. MPI found only nine jurisdictions showing a decrease in pretrial incarceration since the addition of risk-assessment tools. Most have remained the same if not increased. Fresno County, California, adopted the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument in 2012, and within two years, its pretrial population has increased 125 percent.

George Mason University law professor Megan Stevenson published a research paper last year that states judges regularly ignore the risk-assessment recommendation and impose harsher conditions. While risk assessment tools determine that in 90 percent of cases an individual is eligible for a no-bail release, only 29 percent are actually granted.

Data scientist Cathy O’Neill stated that databases are not built off of crime, but off of arrests. The number of arrests far exceeds the number of convictions, and previous practices of racial profiling are automatically perpetuated when that data are included in the database.

Lola Rainey, founder of the Tucson Second Chance Community Bail Fund, said, “Caging people in pretrial detention does not make us safe. We need to ask ourselves why, as a community, why, as a society, we think some people are entitled to freedoms and liberties and some are not. And most of the people we’re denying those liberties to are people of color or people who are otherwise marginalized. That’s the real conversation.” 



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