Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bail Month: Prevention

This blog was originally posted on the Pretrial Justice Institute's Blog on September 9, 2013 as part of Pretrial Justice Institute and Justice Policy Institute Bail Month 2013.

By Sheriff Stan Hilkey, Mesa, County, CO

Law enforcement officers are familiar with the term "prevention" and understand that any time you can be proactive and direct energy towards problems, rather than simply reacting to them, you nearly always have positive outcomes. Prevention in the context of “recidivism” may be less familiar to us, though, and so we may be missing out on some of the most meaningful reform in the criminal justice system.

At those times when a crime occurs, law enforcement, specifically the cops on the street, have perfected the process of walking a person to the front door of the justice system and pushing them inside-- and this is the point at which we have traditionally stood back, dusted off our hands, and declared it’s up to the “system” now to deal with this person. We are also often the biggest critics of the system as we stand on the front step as spectators of what occurs after the arrest.

There is now a large body of research available to us that demands our action to improve the front end of the system. It turns out that interventions on reducing recidivism should start at the point of arrest, rather than starting at the point of trial or conviction, and the entire front end of the justice system, prior to trial or conviction, has remarkable ramifications for recidivism and our officer safety. 

By concentrating on a person’s risk to re-offend in the future and determining this risk through the use of validated risk assessment tools, we can begin the process of working to reduce future crime by that person. Understanding risk in this context and mastering our system’s response to different levels of risk must become as familiar to us as determining probable cause to arrest. If our system responds to medium and high-risk individuals in a way that is known to work (through Evidenced Based Practices), then their likelihood to re-offend in the future can be positively changed. Conversely, the research also points out that if the system over-reacts to people with low risk determinations, we can actually create people more likely to reoffend in the future than if the system did nothing to them. Think about that ... our system’s reaction to low risk people can actually be causing harm in the context of future crime and future victims.

We know that most people charged are eligible to be released from jail prior to plea or trial, but traditionally the process for determining release does not have a mechanism to consider a person’s risk in a way that is supported by research. Usually, people are told a dollar amount based on the offense for which we arrested them.  As a result, high-risk people are frequently released back to the community, while low-risk people sit in jail. That is a backwards scenario and is harmful on both ends. It is time that law enforcement leaders, managers, and officers become knowledgeable of, involved in, and supportive of pretrial release programs that use research-based risk assessment as a foundation for pretrial release decisions.

There are three primary reasons that we must support and be involved in this reform. First, at its core, pretrial release without research-based risk assessment creates a fundamental unfairness that very often favors the most risky and punishes, prior to conviction, the lower risk people. As defenders of civil liberties, our action is demanded. Second, when we look our communities in the eye, we must be able to assure them that we are involved in and supportive of practices that endeavor to keep high risk people contained and that we thoughtfully manage those that can be released in terms of the long range goal of reducing recidivism in our country.

Finally, in the interest of the protection of our own, we should absolutely support systems that use limited jail bed space for those that are the most risky to our officers. Just study the case of Maurice Clemmons, who on November 29, 2009 murdered four Lakewood, Washington police officers while they sat together in a coffee shop. Clemmons, who was out on bail at the time, was, by all accounts, very high risk. But he was able to get out of jail by paying money, money that was presumably set high enough to keep him locked up but didn’t.
This reform, supported by resolutions from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association along with many other national justice organizations, is coming, and our opportunity to shrink the ever-expanding universe of our criminal justice system and make our communities safer is coming with it.

-Stan Hilkey is the Sheriff of Mesa County, Colorado. Mesa County, a research site for pretrial reform, which recently received an award from the National Association of Counties for their progress in changing their pretrial release practices to a research based risk assessment system. They’ve demonstrated a lower FTA* rate, a more effective use of jail beds for high-risk offenders and are managing lower risk offenders in the community with no increases in community danger.

*failure to appear in court

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