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Pre-Trial Services Officers Trained in Risk Assessment Tools
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The pretrial detention rate has substantially increased since the 1982 passage of the Pretrial Services Act. Given the rising costs of pretrial detention, alternatives to detention and conditions of release provide a significant opportunity to ensure cost-effective service to the public. Pretrial services officers not only promote the responsible use of public funding, but also protect the rights of defendants and reasonably ensure the appearance of the defendant in court and the safety of the community.
This month, the last of approximately 1,800 pretrial services officers will complete training in tools that will help them make better assessments about—and some might even say predict which—defendants who are most likely to reoffend or fail to appear in court.
Last year, pretrial services officers prepared over 100,000 pretrial reports. The reports give judges the information they need to decide whether to release or detain a defendant, helping them determine the least restrictive release conditions needed that also safeguard the community.
But where officers once might have made recommendations based on everything from experience to intuition, the new risk assessment tools are grounded in data. “We can predict recidivism,” said Tim Cadigan, supervisory pretrial services administrator at the Administrative Office. “We have the tools to do it, backed by data.” The data was extracted from the Probation and Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System in June 2008 and consists of all persons charged with criminal offenses in the federal courts between October 1, 2001 and September 20, 2007 who were processed by the federal pretrial services system.
A pretrial services officer begins assessing risk when a defendant is first arrested, placing him or her into one of five groups, ranked from low to high risk. Category I, the lowest risk, typically is 29 percent of the defendant population, those defendants with no arrests, no prior crimes, and a 2 percent chance of offending again. Category V is the highest risk with only 3 percent of the population, but the group’s failure rate is 20 percent.
In 3-hour training sessions, officers are introduced to the literature on risk-needs tools, and why risk assessment is done. They’re shown how risk assessment fits into supervision. Then they’re shown the tools—the 11 scored items that help determine a defendant’s category—and how to use them.
“Pretrial Services is the emergency room of the criminal justice system,” said Chief Pretrial Services Officer Donna Makowiecki in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “There are new intakes, court appearances and field work, release issues to anticipate, and urine samples to collect. It’s a fast-paced office and scoring may seem like another thing to do. But we’re embracing evidence-based practices, and a subjective judgment on risk isn’t always the best. Our judges were asking for consistency in our recommendations. These risk assessment tools bring objectivity and consistency.”
Scoring starts with the defendant’s criminal record, specifically prior felonies. Are there any felony convictions? Convictions are used instead of arrests, because they’ve proven to be better indicators. The officer also looks at prior failures to appear in court. Do they have pending cases, either felonies or misdemeanors? What is the seriousness of the current offense with which they’re charged? At this stage of the assessment, the officer is trying to predict two things: is the defendant going to commit a crime or fail to come to court?
A defendant’s age, education, employment, residence, substance abuse and citizenship are also one of the scored items. “There are a number of other items we call unscored items that we think might be relevant.” “ But we don’t have the data to back them up. You have to collect the things you think are important—but only if the data supports adding them.”
A Probation/Pretrial Services Case Tracking System (PACTS) program now automates the process for officers. “You enter the defendant data and the program does the calculations, giving you a raw score and the category into which the defendant falls.,” said Makowiecki.
Seventy-eight percent of the pretrial services officers were trained in the risk assessment tools online with phone conferencing, a combination that allowed everyone to participate remotely, saving travel money. Every pretrial officer who either does investigation or supervision work, and the supervisors of these officers are trained. For September and October, weekly training sessions were scheduled, but in November, sessions dropped to every two weeks, as the remaining number of untrained officers shrank.
Beginning in fiscal year 2012, new officers who attend the National Training Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Center in Charleston, South Carolina, also will be certified in these tools. A training program on the Pretrial Risk Assessment is being developed for magistrate judges and will be available in late 2011.
Do these predictive tools influence the level of supervision? Cadigan says yes. “Now we can check the numbers to see if there is effective supervision. For example, the number of times an officer sees a defendant should increase with the person’s risk category. So the number of contacts, the spending on treatment, the attention a case receives, should all correlate with risk.”
The number of contacts, the spending on treatment, the attention a case receives should all correlate with risk
For example, research shows that increased supervision of individuals in the lowest risk category can have an adverse effect.
“When we take the lowest risk category,” said Cadigan, “and impose location monitoring or placement in a halfway house, for example, we double their failure rate. They go from a 2 percent to a 4 percent failure.”
Risk assessment tools will affect officer recommendations for release or detention, and may help conserve money and resources in the supervision of defendants.
“We’re all short-staffed,” said Makowiecki, “and our resources are limited. With these risk assessment tools, we can potentially decrease the overuse of detention for some categories, the overuse of conditions in others, and apply more resources to defendants in the high-risk Categories 4 and 5, where they are needed most to keep the community safe , all while abiding by the principles of pretrial justice.”