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Algorithm Helps Judges Set Bail in Criminal Cases

The Public Safety Assessment seeks to add greater objectivity to the criminal justice system.

By University Alliance on September 10, 2015
Judges Using Algorithm to Set Bail in Criminal Cases

A new algorithm could bring greater objectivity and fairness to the criminal justice system by helping judges set bail for defendants in criminal cases, potentially easing the nation’s jail population.

Traditionally, judges have relied on a variety of factors in determining whether to detain or release defendants prior to trial. For example, does the defendant have prior convictions, a history of drug abuse, steady employment or a stable family environment?

Additionally, jurisdictions often have bail or bond schedules, which establish specific bail amounts for particular offenses: The more serious the crime, the higher the bail.  

The algorithm, known as the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), is designed to add a greater degree of impartiality to a largely subjective process, which can result in defendants being kept behind bars despite their posing little risk.

The PSA relies on a database of more than 1.5 million cases from about 300 jurisdictions nationwide to identify factors that predict whether a defendant is likely to commit a crime or fail to appear at future court hearings if released pending trial.

The factors relate to an individual’s criminal history and current charge but not to gender, race, education level or socioeconomic status, according to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which developed the algorithm.

“Judges who use the PSA still retain all of their decision-making authority, they simply benefit from the input of an evidence-based tool,” the foundation announced in June 2015.

Adoption of the tool is being expanded to a total of 29 jurisdictions, including the entire states of Kentucky, New Jersey and Arizona, as well as Chicago, Ill., Charlotte, N.C., and Volusia County, Fla.

The foundation said PSA pilot programs have been positive, including in Charlotte, where the jail population has been reduced by almost 20% since spring 2014. Officials there have said crime has not increased and fewer taxpayer dollars are being spent.

The risk-assessment tool comes at a time when about 60% of jail inmates are being detained pending trial, according to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). That rate has held steady for nearly a decade.

As of mid-2014, nearly 745,000 inmates were held in city and county jails nationwide, an increase of about 20% over the 2000 total, the BJS reported. Nearly all of that jail population growth has been the result of the rising number of defendants being detained while awaiting trial.

The Arnold Foundation, which seeks to use evidence-based practices to address issues in criminal justice, education and other arenas, said it plans to make the PSA available at no cost to any interested jurisdictions during the next few years.

Category: 2015 Headlines