Bailed Out: Dane County study gauges risk - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Bailed Out: Dane County study gauges risk

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Dane County's court system is using a data-driven, risk assessment tool to help pinpoint what amount of bail should apply to people arrested or criminally charged, as community groups clamor for more jail releases, and some bailed-out defendants commit more violence.

The Public Safety Assessment, or PSA, is provided to judges in half of the bail consideration cases for people with new arrests or charges.  It's a nine-point system, developing a risk score based on prior felony convictions, prior failures to appear in court, and other measurable factors.

CV Vitolo-Haddad of Derail the Jail maintains plans to spend millions to modernize the Dane County jail is wrongheaded, with inmates too poor to pay bail amounts bloating the jail population.

"About 60 percent of our jail population absolutely does not need to be there,"  Vitolo-Haddad says.

"Perhaps it is true,"  County Clerk of Courts Carlo Esqueda says.  "As court officials are relying upon what they're hearing from the lawyers, going from their own gut instincts on how they should be deciding bail decisions, maybe they're being too conservative,"  Esqueda says.

Court Commissioner Jason Hanson has made thousands of bail decisions in his more than decade on the bench.  Hanson says while factors such housing, employment and family situations have a role in setting a defendant's bail, they may be weighted too heavily.  "And they tend to be sort of subjective factors,"  Hanson says.  "They tend to be factors that have disparate impact in terms of socioeconomics."

They are not factors used in the risk assessment tool.  Esqueda says the PSA's metrics avoid gray areas.  "There's an algorithm behind the scenes that weights the answers to those nine points."

Dane County's two-year study of risk assessment scores in setting bail is being carried out by the Access To Justice laboratory at Harvard University.  Study co-director Chris Griffin says courts in Kentucky are among the jurisdictions also using the tool.

"The results that are very, very preliminarily coming out of Kentucky suggest that...indeed the PSA risk factor scores are highly predictive,"  Griffin says.

Griffin says Kentucky results also suggest the tool is leading to more defendants making bail, and reducing jail populations.

One of the many Dane County defendants considered for bail with input from a PSA was Karen Lynn Becker.  The bail recommendation from the risk assessment in connection to Becker's twenty-four alleged felony financial crimes was release on her signature (signature bond).  Since a court commissioner adopted that bail recommendation in April, Becker has continued to make her court appearances, with no violations of bail terms, or new crimes.

Esqueda says the randomly selected defendants with no risk scores who make up half of those eligible for bail are a control group.  And even risk scores are recommendations only.

Hanson knows he's the ultimate arbiter of bail.

"Everyone of those decisions is an important decision,"  Hanson says.

The case of Dalwayne Howard illustrates the stakes involved in setting bail.

With no risk score assignment, Howard appeared in court before Hanson Dec. 11 after an arrest for domestic abuse; being a felon in possession of a firearm; and with a hold on his probation for armed assault in Illinois.  Hanson granted him a signature bond, but a transcript of the hearing shows even Howard's attorney told him he would remain in jail, as county authorities sorted out his status in Illinois.

During a Dec. 12 extradition hearing for Howard, Hanson required $500 bail.  Howard posted the relatively modest bail, and was released. On Dec. 13, Madison Police officials stated Howard was wanted as a suspect in a new incident involving a woman being "...bound, strangled, beaten with a wooden dowel, and burned with cigarette ashes." 

Hanson declines to comment on specific, bail-setting cases, but responds to the general question of whether he second-guesses himself when bail decisions go wrong.

"I suppose at some level, I think about those things, just like I think about all the people where I took a chance on them, and they made good on it,"  Hanson says.

Hanson says he's encouraged the county is studying the use of metrics in arriving at bail decisions.  Esqueda believes there's a common goal for the effort among stakeholders.

"We just want to make sure we're monitoring the risk properly,"  Esqueda says.

The risk assessment study on bail is set to be completed in April 2019.


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