WASHINGTON—One client was charged with murder. One client was charged with sexual abuse. Both were poor.
Brenda Popplewell, a veteran Kentucky defence lawyer, went to court in each case and asked the judge to set bail low enough for the men to afford. Until recently, she probably would have lost.
Neither man had a history of crime. But judges had rejected Popplewell’s pleas for financial mercy in similarly serious cases. Innocent clients were forced to spend months behind bars waiting to clear their names, their family and professional lives ruined because they couldn’t come up with the cash to buy the pre-trial freedom available to the richer.
“I can win the case,” Popplewell said Wednesday, “but I can’t get six months of his life back.”
The two recent cases were different. In 2013, Kentucky courts began to use a novel computer program, the Public Safety Assessment-Court, that crunches data about each defendant and more than a million previous cases to predict whether the defendant poses a high risk of committing new crimes or skipping out on court dates.
The program, Popplewell said, gave her clients good scores on both counts. The judges, persuaded, set affordable bail. The men went home, and they didn’t cause problems.
Science has no role in most U.S. bail decisions. Judges rely on intuition to decide who goes free and who does not. Critics say the system is rife with bias against blacks, Hispanics and the poor. And low-risk inmates crowd local jails, either unable to afford bail or denied bail by guessing judges who chose to err on the side of public safety.
Facing ballooning costs and mounting complaints, governments around the country are clamouring for a better way. Some are turning to data. More than 20 cities and stateswill soon adopt the computer program used in Kentucky.
“We felt strongly that the way were doing it wasn’t working, because we weren’t getting adequate information to the judges,” said Harold Delia, a court official in the state of Washington’s Yakima County, which will begin using the program later in the year. “It was pretty arbitrary. It was based on what judge you saw and what information was provided by the prosecutor or public defender. It wasn’t what I would call evidence-based.”
The national movement for evidence-based reform has been accelerated by the New York City case of Kalief Browder, a teenager who spent three years in jail on Rikers Island because he couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail for allegedly stealing a backpack. He later killed himself.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an $18-million plan to make greater use of pre-trial supervision in place of bail. De Blasio said 3,000 more people will be kept out of jail. It is “unacceptable,” he said in a statement, for people to be imprisoned “based on the size of their bank account.”
“A huge step in the right direction,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director of theBrooklyn Community Bail Fund. But he said the changes do not go nearly far enough. If the city wants real fairness, Goldberg said, the practice of sending people to jail because they don’t have the ability to pay should be entirely forbidden.
De Blasio said the city will start to use a “validated” risk assessment tool. The tool used in Kentucky was developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, an organization attempting to use evidence to improve the justice system. Its algorithm considers nine pieces of information. Among them: the defendant’s age, current charge, and history of crime. Not among them: race.
Employment status and addiction history are also excluded. Arnold’s research found these factors, often taken into account by judges, don’t actually make a difference.
In Charlotte, an early adopter of the Arnold system, the jail population has dropped sharply. The new adopters include Chicago, Pittsburgh and the state of New Jersey. In Yakima, Delia said, the 12 local judges plan to only rarely exercise their power to reject the release-or-not recommendations the Arnold program spits out.
They are confident, he said, that the software will make good calls.
[“source – thestar.com”]