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#abq4ward: New risk assessment tool designed to set bond more fairly

Caleb James
August 15, 2017 10:28 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When someone in your city is accused of a violent crime, you would feel better if they sat in jail, right? But what about innocent until proven guilty? 

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Bernalillo County judges are looking closely at research suggesting cities across the country have created repeat offenders by jailing first-time defendants. Now New Mexico's Second Judicial District courts are using a formula to help decide if a suspect gets pretrial release. 

The district's chief judge, Nan Nash, is in the eye of Albuquerque’s crime crisis — there’s a lot spinning around her. From APD's thin staffing to a repeat offender crisis, blame often falls on judges who make lasting decisions about the fate of convicts. But they also decide if someone goes home or waits in jail before trial. 

Nash has strong feelings about that crucial step. 

"Jailing low-risk defendants, even for a very short period, actually increases their potential for re-offending," she said. 

It is a concept at the heart of a long-suffering itch in Albuquerque and cities across the nation. Nash said research suggests repeat offenders have even been created by what happened after their first court appearance. 

The Arnold Foundation researched this at some Kentucky prisons. The research organization found low-risk defendants like first offenders who were put in jail for only two to three days after arrest were 40-percent more likely to commit another crime than someone who was released to fight their charges from home. After eight days in jail, the chances went up to 51 percent. 

"And you might ask, 'Why?'" Nash said. "You miss work, you get fired, you can't make enough money to pay your rent, you lose your housing. There are all different sorts of consequences that can follow by simply sitting in jail." 

In Bernalillo County, Nash said we were messing up pretrial release for years. She said even first-time offenders sat in jail far longer than the average because few could afford to pay bond. 

She recalls even defendants with relatively stable lives falling apart — missed car and mortgage payments. Sometimes spouses left while a defendant waited in jail on a first offense.

"What you have to recognize then, is that some people are going to be so desperate to get out of jail that they're going to plead to something," she said.  

Nash believes too much subjectivity has put defendants in jail when they shouldn't necessarily be there, held on bonds they can't pay. On the issue of bond, she said the public has come to view the monetary responsibility as a safety measure, but she believes bond money does little to keep people safe when some dangerous offenders can afford to pony up the cash. 

"Say you're a drug lord, and you're accused of gunning down 20 people," Nash said. "If you have a lot of money because you're a drug lord, you're going to be able to post that bond." 

Assigning bond more fairly and beginning a pattern of long term change is why Nash says the Arnold Foundation chose Albuquerque as one of the cities to implement its public safety assessment -- a formula that maps out an offenders risk to re-offend based solely on criminal past. The foundation developed a formula that maps out an offenders risk to re-offend based solely on criminal past. 

The so-called Arnold Tool doesn’t mess around with gender, race or employment. The formula only considers criminal history, and failure to appear. Add up the risk, and each defendant gets a score that recommends whether they stay in jail, or go home. 

"Not everybody gets to use the Arnold PSA," Nash said. "You have to be accepted as an Arnold jurisdiction, chosen as an Arnold jurisdiction to use that tool." 

Nash said the thinking behind long-term use of the tool is gradual reduction in the number of repeat offenders. Across the street at the Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office, policy and planning chief Adolfo Mendez said the Arnold Tool should be used to enhance informed decision-making. 

"Ultimately, it comes down to people, judges, prosecutors, looking at a case-by-case basis," Mendez said. "Our office, for example, will move to detain someone when we believe it's in the best interest of public safety."

Mendez said the tool should not replace people. He said decisions should ultimately rest with judges, but knowledge is power.  

"It's just one piece of information among other sources of information to help support that decision making," he said. 

Nash said the Arnold Tool is not a mandate and it doesn't have to be followed to the letter, though the courts have asked judges to follow it as closely as possible to get a good idea of its effectiveness.  

"If that was the kind of system we were advocating, we could have robots applying the system," she said.

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Caleb James

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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