Shelby County to launch pilot program to examine pretrial services

By Published: March 11, 2019 4:37 PM CT

In an effort to reduce the jail population, Shelby County plans to test on a trial basis a risk assessment tool to help judges make bail decisions on cases involving nonviolent defendants.

“Shelby County has roughly 2,900 men and women in county jail facilities,” Mayor Lee Harris said in a news release Monday. “Many are not considered a threat to public safety and could go home to await their trial date, if they had money for bail. They stay in our jails primarily because they don’t have any money. This comes at a tremendous cost. It is nearly $100 per day to house an inmate waiting for trial. A simple back-of-the envelope calculation would reveal that the costs of detention are more than $100 million per year.”

Using a pretrial risk assessment tool called Public Safety Assessment, or PSA, the county’s newly appointed executive director of pretrial services, Llana Greer, has been charged by county leaders with implementing the technology tool that will help decide who stays in jail.

The risk assessment tool uses computer-generated data, or algorithm-based factors including the defendant’s criminal history and past court appearances, to determine the likelihood of returning to court and if they will commit a new crime.

A judge then uses their computer-generated scores from the PSA tool to help decide if a defendant will be held in jail on bail or if they will be released on a promise to return to court at a later date. The pretrial defendants who will be assessed for the pilot program are nonviolent and low-risk offenders, officials said.

“We will soon begin the important work of criminal justice reform through pretrial services,” Harris said. “Using technology and up-to-date tools, we can change the lives of thousands of people involved with the criminal justice system, save precious resources, and still keep our community safe.”

The PSA tool has been used in recent years by many criminal justice systems across the country. Twenty-eight states –including courts in Wisconsin, California and New Jersey –have used the pretrial risk assessment tools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the PSA tools have faced controversy as well. Supporters and opponents have debated the use of  computer-driven data being used as a bail reform tool. 

Last year, 120 criminal justice organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, signed a statement against the pretrial assessment tools. They argued racial biases may be factored into the computer data generated by the PSAs and add to  existing racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

“When considering whether and how to adopt pretrial risk assessment instruments, jurisdictions and stakeholders must acknowledge that the criminal justice system in the United States, since its inception, has allocated benefits and burdens on the basis of race. History confirms the point, as do decades of research and data,” the organizations wrote in the July 30, 2018, statement opposing PSA.

They argue the PSA tools used must be “transparent, independently validated, and open to challenge by an accused person’s counsel.”

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, said he believes PSA has proven to be an effective resource in other parts of the country, and it can have the same impact in Shelby County – as long as stakeholders believe and trust the data.

“I think the key is being faithful to it, and that’s the really hard part. And that’s going to be the challenge for Shelby County, is whether we are faithful to the tool,” Spickler said in a phone interview. “Because the tool is going to identify people who do not need to be detained, who are not a risk at flight or risk to public safety. We have to trust the tool.”

The trial PSA is set to be launched by the county later this spring, officials said. 


pretrial services criminal justice reform Lee Harris

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