Pretrial risk assessment instruments are research-based guides to taking risks; they cannot predict with accuracy a specific individual’s behavior.
While they differ from county to county, a pretrial risk assessment instrument is typically a one-page summary of the characteristics of an individual that presents a score corresponding to his or her likelihood to fail to appear in court or be rearrested prior to the completion of their current case.
Risk factors may include (but are not limited to):
• Current charge;
• Demographics (data of birth, age, sex, and race);
• Residency (current address (if any), length of time spent there, persons living with);
• Employment (status, length and nature of employment, FT or PT, source of income if unemployed);
• Substance abuse and mental health status (current or prior problems and treatment); and
• Current criminal justic status (on probation, parole or pretrial release) and history.
Responses to the questions are weighted, based on data that shows how strongly each item is related to the risk of flight or rearrest during pretrial release. Then the answers are tallied to produce an overall risk score or level, which can inform two decisions: 1) the decision to release or detain pretrial, and 2) if released, the assignment of appropriate supervision conditions.
Click here to view sample risk assessment instruments and validation studies.
The goal of pretrial risk assessment is to make risk assessments and subsequent pretrial decisions more consistent across jurisdictions, and to maximize the number of successful pretrial decisions. Standardized, validated risk assessments have been shown to be far more effective in determining a threat to public safety than bail schedules based on the offense or other systems that rely on subjective screening devices alone, and new scientific tools are making these determinations more empirical and reliable.
Validating the Risk Assessment Tool
Validated risk assessments are the key to maintaining objectivity in the pretrial process. All instruments should be revalidated at regular intervals to ensure they retain their predictive validity.Having a validated risk assessment instrument means that the tool the county uses has been shown, through the objective collection and rigorous analysis of data, to have predictive value for the defendants in your system. Many counties start their programs by borrowing a risk assessment instrument from another county. Comparing several counties’ tools reveals that they often contain different items. What’s predictive in one county is not always found to be predictive in another. The key is to collect information on your own defendants and then, through sophisticated statistical methods that factor in the infleuence of other items considered in the risk assessment, analyze how often you are correctly predicting risk of rearrest or flight.
Developing the Risk Assessment Instrument
Pretrial risk assessment instruments may be qualitative, quantitative, or a combination of both. Qualitative risk assessments have fallen out of favor because they are less consistent across multiple assessors, and they have been shown to have less predictive value than quantitative measures, particularly when compared with actuarial risk assessments. A 2009 survey of pretrial services programs found that the majority of pretrial programs (64 percent) use a combination of objective and subjective criteria in risk assessment, and 12 percent of pretrial programs rely exclusively on subjective criteria (i.e., gut feeling, professional experience, etc.). Only 24 percent of programs rely only on objective criteria in making their risk assessments. Recent research also indicates that judges are still dependent on the use of bond schedules in making pretrial release decisions.
The Urban Institute's Development of an Empirically-Based Risk Assessment Instrument and the Utah Criminal Justice Center's Pretrial Release Risk Study, Validation & Scoring provide in-depth examples of developing risk assessment intruments.
Below are further reading on evidence-based decision making and pretrial risk assessment: