The Risks and Rewards of Pretrial Release

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courtstoday.com on 2/29/2016 by Donna Rogers

With the high cost of incarceration and many lives wasted by incarceration, risk assessment tools, community supervision and technology that can support pretrial release into the community seems not only to be substantially cutting costs, but helping offenders too, experts say.

By employing pretrial release, say community corrections supervisors, pregnant woman and those with chronic illnesses can then continue to go to their regular doctors, saving Medicaid/Medicare costs for the jurisdiction. Offenders with jobs can continue to go to them if they are  on a monitoring program. Young people can finish school. And those needing treatment can get it in a timely fashion.

There is a paradigm shift in the way offenders are viewed, especially around pretrial management, states John Schloemann, national sales leader with Tribridge, a technology services firm. He says that as a whole, we are “moving from resource-based to risk-based decision-making,” and he believes it ultimately makes sense because many in jail have not been found guilty. “More than 60% of those in jail are awaiting trial,” which not only “takes up valuable space but can cost $60 to $200 a day to house them.”

It appears the trend is that courts and law enforcement “are pivoting more aggressively to an evidence-based model,” he furthers. “We are assessing the threat to individual and to the public more so now than ever before.”

Based on recent legislative sessions, progressive states are moving to a risk-based rather than a bail-based release program, concurs Angel Ilarraza, Ph.D, a criminologist, public policy planner and currently director of consulting and business development with Northpointe, Inc., the developer of nationally-recognized classification instruments. Other states, however,  despite legislative mandates, are releasing to community corrections, but are doing so “begrudgingly.”  He notes that he is not advocating “letting everyone out” but is suggesting we make smarter decisions about whom gets incarcerated based on metrics about who is a threat.

Dr. Ilarraza points to a study of pretrial offenders tracked by the National Association of Bail Bondsmen that compared FTA rates in publicly funded bail programs. The bondsmen’s perception initially was they did a better job of getting folks to show up to court dates, he details. But that wasn’t the case. “Now actuarial risk tools really help us understand the failure to appear rate.”

Use of money bail “without addressing the risk, especially for the risk for violence, doesn’t make sense,” he believes. “It seems to make the best sense to move from resource- to risk-based assessment—and to consider the likelihood of reoffending and violent reoffending.” There has been a shift towards local dispositions of criminal cases as part of criminal justice reform. This has often been motivated less by effectiveness and more by fiscal concerns, says Helen Harberts, a longtime criminal justice professional, now retired, who served many years as a deputy district attorney, working with drug courts, as well as a chief probation officer and as the interim director of a community supervision and corrections program. “However, she continues, “when appropriate risk AND need assessments are done correctly, they provide a good guide for what can be expected from a person who is released into the community.” She cautions that addressing needs in conjunction with risk is crucial. “In other jurisdictions, the trend has been to release people, but the amount of local resources is insufficient to meet the assessed needs, or the assessments are not followed.  In those areas, drug use and crime is going up. Deaths and overdoses are increasing. Neglect cases are increasing.

“It should be obvious to all that using an assessment to determine the level of intervention required to address criminality, and then NOT following the assessment with adequate services in sufficient dosage is a recipe for trouble. It breaches the public trust,” she says.

She says that unfortunately “risk assessment tools are often NOT used at all available points of contact due to funding and access restrictions. Clearly, the entire system would be better off with assessment-driven decision-making that occurs as quickly as possible upon the initiation of criminal proceedings, and is repeated throughout the defendant’s stay in the criminal justice system.”

Harberts furthers that “…Timely treatment interventions which are driven by good assessments improve the prognosis for success in criminal offenders and may favorably impact their ultimate case resolution.” She cautions that the majority of our high-risk offenders who present the poorest prognosis of successfully completing probation without violations have criminal thinking errors. Thus, along with substance abuse treatment in high-risk offenders, it is vital to address criminal thinking with a tool such as MRT (an evidence based practice instrument developed by Correctional Counselling Inc.). “Failure to do so is like trying to run a four wheel car on three tires. You basically make a clean and sober criminal.”

The Northpointe Suite is an automated decision-support software package of scientifically validated risk/needs assessment and offender case management tools. It was developed to be a repository of information to follow an individual’s trajectory through the criminal justice system, explains Ilarraza. It offers functionality through various agencies and uses the nationally recognized Decision Tree Objective Jail Inmate Classification System.

Using a cross tabulation system (see Figure 1) it shows how much risk an offender might present, if they are eligible for release and what level of supervision they would require. In a pretrial setting, agencies can determine based on the risk factor “what are we willing to tolerate within our community and if offenders are eligible or not,” Ilarraza notes. In addition to the risk, it also can provide an assessment of criminogenic need that can help a probation officer understand what type of intervention should be applied, he furthers. “It is not a cookie cutter approach.”

Another tool, Tribridge Pretrial360 is a set of solutions to help agencies deal with pretrial management more effectively. It has three distinct modules to focus on different areas of pretrial management: Defendant Management, Supervision Case Management, and Risk Assessments. Essentially what the program does is consolidate a wide range of info—from the court, previous offender information, etc., from a behavioral standpoint, says Tribridge’s Schloemann. From it, users can develop a report with a snapshot of key metrics for the judge to make a decision.
Getting this information from a single system typically isn’t happening today, he furthers. “It is a disjointed process, it is not easy to assemble [the data], and it’s very heavy and paper based,” Schloemann points out. “Our solution allows all the information to go into one system.” Some of the metrics within Pretrial360 include: Criminal history tracking, mental illness, pending charges, past FTAs, and ability to track a monitoring device. It has recently been deployed by Mesa and Wells Counties in Colorado.

Moving from a resource- to risk-based decision model, he emphasizes, “can have a profound impact on recidivism rates. Statistics show that by just staying one night in jail, offenders are more likely to go to jail again.”

Pretrial Electronic Monitoring Pilot

Nash County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office, a somewhat small department with 80 sworn officers and 50 jail personnel, has been providing a pretrial release program for the past several years. Located near Rocky Mount, about 60 miles east of Raleigh, the area is mostly rural and farmland, with about a 100,000 residents spread over 600,000 square miles. The department typically tracks about 10 to 15 people, says Deputy Randy Van Houten, mostly low-level offenders who can’t afford bail.

Van Houten explains that with the distance separating them and the unreliability of cell phones in wooded locales, he has worked with quite a few vendors’ equipment. Some of it didn’t work and some of it was just big and bulky, especially the personal tracking unit that offenders have to carry with them that stigmatized them as a criminal, he notes. Another issue he found was with the ankle bracelets, which, if not kept clean, can cause skin infections but when users tried to clean behind them, the band would come undone and backplate would fall off, causing repeated false alerts.

Nash County is running a pilot program with the Corrisoft AIR program, which has a smartphone serving as a tracking device that the offender can hide in his or her pocket or purse. “Offenders love it because they saw we were trying to help them,” he says. In addition, it saves the county a bundle. It costs about $8 a day compared to an estimated $60 a day to have someone in jail, he says. In fact in 2015 it saved the county about $109,000—and that is without medical costs. Because the jail is relatively small, housing about 250 (in contrast, neighboring Wake County holds about 1,200), it doesn’t have 24/7 medical. After 11 pm, they send any medical emergencies to the local hospital with a deputy, he says. With offenders that have heart disease, diabetes, gout, and even one on dialysis, the latter of whom needed to be accompanied by a deputy three times a week for a six hour process, “cost savings are great” for monitoring in the community. “They can go to work, to their regular doctor. They receive  medical care we can’t provide.”

Pre-adjudication medical costs   were also an issue with the St. Lucie County Pretrial Program in Florida. “The biggest thing we stumbled on is paying medical costs,” says Mark Godwin, criminal justice coordinator. Offenders, for example, might be pregnant and deliver a baby, then be treated at the mental health facility for postpartum depression. “Our local hospitals charge counties about 200% more than Medicare costs,” he says—and they were seeing this on a daily basis. “Once we put them on the program they can be on their own insurance.”

St. Lucie carries a caseload of 150 to 200 offenders supervised daily, with about 65 on electronic monitoring. “We put them on as a sanction while they’re in drug court,” explains Ivelisse Chico-Randazzo, pretrial program manager, St. Lucie County Pretrial Program. “We add the extra layer of supervision,” she says, so they can go about their lives. She says they contract with Satellite Tracking of People (STOP) for electronic monitoring equipment, and with a staff of 10 (one person is on-call overnight) they can monitor remotely from a computer any time of the day or night.

“We can track when they are at their place of business, go to meetings, we even see them leaving to get the school bus.” In one case the monitoring technology tracked an offender that broke into an off-site police evidence storage unit where marijuana was stored from a grow—even providing police with the window that was breached.

Judges bought into the program “when they saw the doomsday projections for the jail,” says Godwin, which was then 1,300 beds, but was projected for 1,700 to 2,000 beds based on population increases. It has since remained at about 1,300, and because pretrial staff is located in the courthouse, it gives the judges the confidence to work with us, he details. The program has been successful. Since it was put into place in 2007, neighboring counties are seeing the benefit and catching on. Lately they have begun contracting with St. Lucie County to handle monitoring for them.