Tool used to recommend pretrial release under scrutiny

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SANTA FE, N.M. — The Arnold tool is one of the most controversial parts of the metro’s criminal justice system. On Friday, state lawmakers got an in-depth look at how the Arnold tool works, and how it’s used.

It is widely believed the tool provides recommendations about which suspects should be detained before trial. Prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators in Friday’s hearing said that’s not true.

The tool is only meant to give judges advice about what level of supervision suspects might need before trial.

However, data presented during Friday’s hearing showed many judges in Bernalillo County appear to follow the tool’s advice when making release decisions, and that’s despite a recent UNM study that says the Arnold tool does not influence those decisions.

The director of the Administrative Office of the Courts revealed the version of the Arnold tool used in Bernalillo County is the only one that includes the words “detain” and the acronym for “release” in the chart itself. State senators suggested that may be part of the problem.

“We have an acknowledgment here that we have a tool, here’s what it does,” said Sen. Greg Baca. “But we’re knowingly using it incorrectly in our largest district in the state?”

A computer scientist also reminded the committee the tool is just an algorithm, and not a complex one. He said it only looks at nine factors – mostly a suspect’s prior criminal history – to predict if someone will be successful on pretrial release. He questioned how much weight should be placed on the tool when making release decisions.

“Should you be able to detain men based on statistics? In other words, should you be able to detain me no the average behavior of defendants whose records look similar to mine?” asked Cristopher Moore with the Santa Fe Institute.

Several presenters reminded the committee that judges always have the final decision, and many have gone against the tool’s advice.


New Mexico is not the only state that has had problems with the Arnold tool.

The executive director of the Justice Action Network said New Jersey lawmakers added a decision-making framework on top of the tool. It essentially outlines which crimes state leaders decided should warrant, pretrial detention – like gun crimes. Judges are then required to take that into consideration.

This appears to be an alternative to rebuttable presumption, which automatically assumes certain suspects are too dangerous to be released.