Every prosecutor’s office in the country shares common challenges, regardless of size and population demographics. Prosecutors also share a set of core values grounded in protecting the public, holding offenders accountable and maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system. I fundamentally believe that what prosecutors do on a daily basis makes communities better, but it is very easy to become consumed and defined by what happens inside the courthouse walls. How we do the work of prosecutors does matter, and a growing body of research shows that the decisions we make concerning how we hold offenders accountable can play a significant role in stabilizing individuals, families and communities by changing the behavior that leads to repeated criminal acts.
In deciding what to do with any individual contacting the justice system, prosecutors naturally try to obtain as much information and evidence as possible concerning the alleged crime, the prior criminal history of the defendant and the harm done to the victim or community. Historically, we have not been objectively well informed about the risk that the person poses to commit new offenses. Sure, we use our professional judgment and institutional experience to approximate risk, but only recently have we started examining whether our assumptions are supported by the outcome we desire: is an offender changed by the encounter? Does he or she stop committing crimes?
In this context, two Wisconsin counties, Milwaukee and Eau Claire, have committed to developing a framework that places risk assessment at the forefront of our decision making process. Working with experts in pretrial justice services, we developed validated risk assessment tools that we apply to everyone coming into our jail. The objective is to have actuarial information that helps better inform decisions on what we do or do not charge, what kind of bail conditions are set and what kind of intervention resources we apply early on in the continuum from arrest to sentencing. Some tools are used to assess short-term risk, addressing whether a defendant will show up for court and obey conditions of release. Other tools tell us how likely the person is to commit new offenses.