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Pretrial risk assessment: Is it fair, and does it work?

| Nov 20, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Opinions differ.

That is an eminently safe statement to make concerning pretrial risk assessment, a criminal justice tool employed to decide a fundamental issue concerning individuals charged with crimes who are awaiting trial.

Assessment has a logical thrust and rationale. It is used in courts across Colorado to gauge whether an alleged offender can be safely released into a local community while waiting for formal processes to unfold.

Evaluative factors sometimes assume that an individual will not reoffend or be a flight risk. Assessment criteria in some instances also lead prosecutors and judges to conclude, though, that a defendant will pose a high risk if released.

As stated above, opinions diverge on the fairness and effectiveness of pretrial risk assessment. One in-depth media piece recently chronicled the history and controversy surrounding pretrial risk assessment in Colorado.

It centrally noted this: “It’s a conundrum that has plagued the criminal justice system in the U.S. for decades.”

A key reason why links to outcomes that simply don’t make sense in many cases. Examples can easily be found showing illogic and disparity in outcomes involving individuals charged with the same crime. The above-cited article makes the point that one of those persons often enough ends up being released because he or she simply has the means to post bail. The other individual might remain behind bars owing solely to constrained economic means.

And researchers point to other factors that sometimes work to yield unfair results. They underscore “certain biases” surrounding race, homelessness and other matters.

Members of ACLU Colorado say that pretrial risk assessment fails in the key respect that it does not minimize incarceration outcomes.

“Risk assessment tools have not decreased the pretrial population,” states a principal with that organization. She says that decision makers merely “take biases and make them look objective, and that is actually more harmful.”

We will keep readers duly apprised of ongoing reform efforts and developments concerning pretrial risk assessment in Colorado.

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