If you ask anyone, regardless of their political views, who they would rather have behind bars awaiting trial: Someone who poses a threat to society but can afford to pay their way out of jail, or someone who poses little to no threat to society but can’t afford to get out jail? It’d likely be the former.
Currently in most jurisdictions in Texas, bail determinations generally hinge on the ability to pay for release, not whether someone is a threat to our safety. However, there are validated risk assessment models that can more accurately predict whether someone will fail to appear for court appearances or commit another offense while awaiting trial. These are tools that can help supplement, not supplant, a judge’s decision to release or hold a defendant while awaiting trial. Determining the level of risk a person poses over their ability to pay is a better determining factor when it comes to preserving public safety.
The evidence supports this claim. A recent study performed by the Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University compared the bail systems of Travis and Tarrant Counties. Travis County uses a validated risk assessment to determine whether low-risk individuals can be released without requiring some sort of financial requirement, while Tarrant County, almost without exception requires a pre-trial bond.
The study examined three and a half years of data from both counties and uncovered several major findings that present a strong case from both public safety and financial standpoints for the use of validated risk assessments. Specifically, a validated risk assessment led to less high-risk defendants being released as well as fewer low-risk defendants being detained.
Victim costs are 72 percent lower when a risk assessment is used. This is due to the fact that more often than not, crimes committed by those who are released on money bail are felonies and more often than not, those felonies are violent. Further, although initial investments in risk assessment models are more than predominately money bail systems, these costs are made up and save money in real dollars in the long run. Use of validated risk assessments are a win-win.
Additionally, the underpinnings of our criminal justice system’s long held belief in “innocent until proven guilty” are compromised when individuals who pose little to no risk of flight or new criminal activity are held solely because they cannot afford bail. The data show that individuals who are detained pre-trial are much more likely to be convicted and usually through a plea deal. And it’s not uncommon for someone to make a plea in order to be released from jail and receive a more lenient punishment, even if they are not guilty.
Unfortunately, only six counties out of 254 in Texas are currently using a validated risk assessment. This would have changed this session had a bipartisan bill passed through the Legislature. HB 3011 and SB 1338 would have, among other things, required each county to adopt a validated pretrial risk assessment.
With the growing body of research showing that using a validated risk assessment to assist judges in pre-trial detention decisions can increase public safety, decrease costs, and preserve our constitutional protections, I am confident that these will be in use in all Texas counties soon.