The crime rate in Maine has been steadily decreasing since 1990, while the average daily population in Maine Jails has grown 71 percent. One factor of this growth is an increase in the average length of stay for a pre-trial defendant, which has doubled from 7 days in 1990 to 14 days in 2004. 60 percent of those admissions were due to violation of probation. The Maine State Legislature formed the Corrections Alternatives Advisory Committee (CAAC) in 2005 to study the causes of these increases and provide recommendations to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of Maine’s criminal justice system.1
In its Interim Report to the Maine Legislature, the CAAC made several recommendations, one of which was to “reduce the average length of pre-trial defendant’s stay within jail,” based on the a key finding that a pre-trial defendant’s average length of stay along with probation revocations were increasing costs and the use of jail bed space. The report highlighted problems with the initial assessment of pre-trial risk, including:
- most cases were completed by a Bail Commissioner;
- identification was rarely confirmed through fingerprints;
- limited local criminal history was available;
- self-reported information was limited, e.g.: community ties, residence, employment
- substance use, mental or physical health information was rarely available, and
- information was often relayed by phone by the corrections or police officer.
In the last few years, numerous organizations including the American Bar Association (2002) and the National Institute of Justice (2001) have issued strong recommendations about the need to adopt risk assessments in pretrial decisions. Classification instruments at the pretrial stage are designed to identify arrestees who are more likely to be a danger to the community and less likely to appear in court. To accurately identify high and low-risk arrestees an objective and validated assessment instrument should be used. 1
Of the seven main recommendations of CAAC’s final report, three focus on pre-trial procedures, including “changing pre-trial procedures to reduce the average length of stay for those awaiting trial” and integrating “Risk and Need Assessments into Criminal Justice Processing.” The report notes that decisions relating to sentencing and setting of bail, “must be tied to offender risk level. To do this, sentencing judges and post sentencing agencies must use a validated risk assessment method that meaningfully differentiates between offenders who are high, moderate, or low risk. Length of supervision and the services provided must be clearly tied to an offender’s risk level. Sentencing judges need to have options at their disposal that are appropriate for the risk level of the offenders being processed.”2
It appears that few pre-trial programs (less than 1 in 4) rely on objective criteria when making bail recommendations. Of those who do, 39 percent adopt a classification scheme from another district, while only 25 percent report developing it by using data from their own jurisdiction. Research suggests that risk assessment tools should be piloted and validated within the jurisdiction where the tool is being implemented so that it can successfully predict the outcomes for the population that is being served (Lowenkamp, Lemke and Latessa, 2008.)
History of Pre-Trial Risk Assessments:
In 1961, the Vera Institute created the first pre-trial screening program, the Manhattan bail project, which sought to aid pre-trial agents in making release decisions. The factors incorporated included the defendants’ ties to the area, employment status, education, and prior criminal record. As the first such program of its kind, the Manhattan bail project produced two significant findings
- The frequent use of finances as bail forced many defendants to remain in pretrial custody, and
- Individuals with strong ties to the community were likely to appear at required court proceedings, even if they were not assigned financial bail.
The experiences and findings from the Manhattan bail project were integral to the bail reform movement, but were predicated on the availability and accuracy of information about the defendant prior to release.
Recently, several jurisdictions have attempted to develop and implement objective risk assessments with greater complexity, with regard to the factors included in the instruments as well as the statistical methodologies employed. The Urban Institute developed and validated a risk prediction instrument on a large sample of Washington, DC pretrial defendants (Winterfield, Coggeshall, & Harrell, 2003). The resulting instrument comprised 22 items in two separate subscales; the safety risk scale and the appearance risk scale. Nearly all the incorporated items that predicted either of the outcomes were components of criminal history, demographics (i.e., age, citizenship), current criminal charge, and drug involvement/testing.
In Virginia, the pretrial risk assessment comprises of nine risk factors (VanNostrand, 2003). Six of the nine risk factors are derived from an individual’s criminal history, and three incorporate additional factors such as residential stability, employment, and drug use. The risk assessment is administered by interviewing the defendant; however, individuals conducting the assessment are required to verify all possible information provided by the defendant. VanNostrand used this information to create a risk factor scale from 0-10. Using these scores, VanNostrand found a significant relationship between an individual’s risk factor score and a combined outcome measure of failure to appear/new arrest.
Finally, In one of the most current and complex risk assessment tools developed specifically for pretrial decision-making, Lowencamp et al. (2008) validated a pretrial screening tool for federal defendants that included 63 items covering eight different theoretical risk and need domains to predict both failure to appear and new offenses on release pending sentencing. These included criminal history, pretrial supervision, drug/alcohol use, employment, residence/transportation, mental health, antisocial personality characteristics, and a scale measuring criminal associates. The results of the validation study found that the overall pretrial assessment score was found to be significantly correlated with both failure to appear and new arrest.