Milwaukee County's Use of Risk Assessment Tool Keeps Some People Out of Jail While Awaiting Trial

May 25, 2017

Milwaukee County may be putting fewer suspects in jail while they’re awaiting trial. That's because for the past year, the court system has been using a new risk assessment tool. It gauges whether a person charged with a crime is likely to flee or commit another crime, if he or she is released.

A number of states are using the strategy. Officials using the approach here shared their experiences at the Marquette University Law School on Wednesday.

The tool is called a Public Safety Assessment. Chief Judge Maxine White says it’s based on research that can predict a defendant's behavior. She says the PSA includes nine factors that can help determine whether someone charged with a crime should remain behind bars:

·         Whether the current offense is violent

·         Whether the person has a pending charge at the time of the arrest

·         Whether the person has a prior misdemeanor

·         Whether they have a prior felony

·         Whether the person has a prior conviction for a violent crime

·         What's the age of the person at the time of arrest?

·         Whether the person failed to appear at a pre-trial hearing in the last two years

·         Whether the person failed to appear at pre-trail hearings more than two years ago

·         Whether the person has previously been sentenced to incarceration

Local judges have been using the risk assessment tool, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Assistant State Public Defender Tom Reed is pleased with the results. He says it's critical to keep people out of jail, when possible, because a stint behind bars can negatively impact lives.

"In many employment situations, especially for people who are at the lower end of the economic totem pole, if you're not at work tonight when your job expects you, don't bother coming in tomorrow because that's it. You're done with that job."

Reed adds that some people who are jailed might not be able to take care of their children or keep stable housing. "You can start to see where you have these impacts, and those deepen pretty rapidly for people, even over a few days."

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says the new risk assessment tool does not take control away from court officials. "We don't suspend our advocacy roles. We don't suspend our professional judgment." Rather, Chisholm says prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys can share things they know about a defendant that could impact their decision.

"I might have somebody that scores out as low risk, but when somebody in my witness protection unit is monitoring their jail conversation they might hear a direct conversation between the defendant and the victim in the case, where he's trying to dissuade that victim from coming to court, trying to prevent them from coming to court. That's something that I know that the court's not going to know, that the defense attorney's not going to know," Chisholm says.

Chisholm says the county's adoption of the risk assessment tool is part of an ongoing transformation of the court system. He says it's been using other evidence-based approaches as well, such as drug treatment courts and veterans courts, to keep people out of jail if they don’t have to be there. Chisholm says the changes can be better for the individuals involved, as well as a better use of limited taxpayer dollars.

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