Pretrial Risk Assessments Continue; Research Effort Cut Short

Jun 18, 2018

A pilot program in four Iowa counties that aims to make the pretrial bond system fairer for all defendants will continue through the end of the year because of a veto by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. But a new, shorter timeline limits research efforts around the program.

Multiple state agencies collaborated to start a Public Safety Assessment (PSA) Pilot program in January. A computer program is used to evaluate the risk level of a defendant charged with the crime, and a judge can use that information to decide whether the defendant should stay in jail while awaiting trial. It’s an alternative to the bond system, in which defendants who can’t afford to pay often stay in jail while higher-income defendants are released.

Data from Iowa’s pilot program was originally meant to be part of a study from Harvard University’s Access to Justice Lab and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In her veto message, Reynolds decided Iowa’s pilot program will end December 31. That won’t meet Harvard’s need for four years' worth of data.

A spokesperson from the Arnold Foundation said that makes this “a short-term program evaluation [with Harvard University's approval], rather than a comprehensive research project, studying the Public Safety Assessment and its use in Iowa.”

Jerry Evans is executive director for the Fifth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and helps oversee Polk County’s PSA program, which started in January.

“So we’re continuing to gather data and hopefully we’ll have a large enough sample size that it will help the governor and the legislature get an idea of how the program is operating,” Evans said.

The Arnold Foundation spokesperson said researchers are working with Polk and Linn County officials to “make the necessary adjustments to their research agenda following the recent action” by the legislature and governor.

Woodbury and Scott Counties are also participating in pilot programs.

Republican lawmakers in May passed a bill that would end the pilot program immediately.

During House debate at the end of April, Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, said he was worried about people who commit major crimes being released because of this program.

“The other piece that’s concerning is that we as legislators are not privy to the computer program that runs this particular process,” Worthan said.

In her veto message, Reynolds writes the state “should consider and study ways to create a fairer pretrial system that protects the public.”

“If, after studying the data and research conclusions, it is found that this program will be in the best interests of the public, then new legislation should be considered that authorizes the PSA or similar risk-assessment tools,” Reynolds writes.

Evans said he is seeing more people released before trial, but he has not seen a spike in violent crime or “technical violations” since Polk County implemented the PSA. He said a defendant who can’t afford to bond out before trial often has to stay in jail, which means they might lose their job and eventually their home.

“So over the long term we are actually decreasing, I believe, the crimes that may potentially occur down the road by getting a lot more of these low risk defendants released prior to their trial,” Evans said.

He noted about 80 percent of defendants in Polk County are sentenced to probation and won’t face jail time, anyway.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that Harvard's Access to Justice Lab requires four years' worth of data, including 24 months of participation in the randomized trial, for PSA studies. A previous version said the study required 18 months of data.