Idaho Officials Proclaim the Success of the Idaho Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool the Day Before a Landmark Study Came out that Proves It Doesn’t Work

Idaho Government Officials Proclaim The Success Of The Idaho Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool The Day Before A Landmark Study Came Out That Proves It Doesn’t Work

The Idaho Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (IPRAI), used to predict the risk of failing to appear in court or committing a new crime while on bail, recently came under fire in a news article in the Washington Post.  The article noted that there has been widespread concern that the assessments may actually make the system worse, noting that twenty-seven prominent academics from coast-to-coast have called for an end to pretrial risk assessments in the United States.

In Ada County, however, not only is there no conversation of ending pretrial risk assessments, but Ada County is steaming forward on this by having modified the tool which debuted on November 1, 2019 and employing nine full time employees to administer the tool and supervise defendants.  They are doing this, according to the Sheriffs’ website, because, “We feel the decision on whether or not someone charged with a crime should be in jail or not should be based on risk to the community, not the size of a bank account.”  The Sheriff also stated: “The pretrial unit now has more tools, information, and employees assigned to it than ever before.”

Facing criticism of the IPRAI, government employees did what government employees always do—defend and deflect.  First, Judge Melissa Moody rebutted the argument that judges are overly-reliant on the tool by saying that the tool is just one more piece of information.  She also pointed out, however, that if judges were overly-reliant on the tool, that such over-reliance “would be very concerning to me.”

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The second defender of the IPRAI is a person who seems more self-interested in maintaining her job and that of her nine employees—ADA County Pretrial Services Director Katie Martin.  She told the Idaho Press that the tool “evens the field rather than skewing it.”  We’re not sure what that means statistically, but we think that is government-speak for it works and reduces racial and other protected-class bias.  Let’s assume that is what Director Martin means.

Well, the day after these Idaho officials were touting the success of the IPRAI, which is based on the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (VPRAI), a study by two disinterested third-party professors found that the Virginia risk assessment process was fatally flawed insofar as it did not reduce recidivism, lead to “relative increase in sentences for black defendants,” and lead to age discrimination insofar is it lead to “higher relative incarceration rates for defendants under the age of 23.”  The research also rebutted Judge Moody’s claim and found that judges’ decisions are heavily influenced by risk assessment tools.  The full study can be downloaded here.

Incidentally, we asked for any records that Ada County had reflecting that they had tested the IPRAI for racial or gender bias in September of 2018.  At that time, no one had bothered to test the IPRAI for race or gender bias.  In fact, the County replied back that “information in regards to racial and/or gender bias review of the risk assessment is not currently available, however we are in the process of creating this so it will be available in the future.”  Then, in November of 2019, a revised tool, again based on the Virginia tool, began to be utilized.  But guess what?  The County has not released any “information in regards to racial and/or gender bias review of the risk assessment tool,” which leads to a simple conclusion—they did not test it for bias, they don’t want to test it for bias, and they are not going to test it for bias.  It is now a year later, and the County is moving forward anyway, despite a mountain of concerns with the tools.

So, in Idaho, the Virginia pretrial risk assessment tool works, but yet in Virginia, it doesn’t.  How can that be?  How long is Ada County going to continue to pay nine full employees to engage in a process that makes the situation worse and not better, when instead the Sheriff could put nine more deputies on the street to truly protect the safety of the public or spend it on substance use programs that might actually break the cycle of recidivism.

Pretrial risk assessments are nothing more than snake-oil: it doesn’t improve the system, wastes precious tax dollars, and may actually make the system worse.

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