by Heather Rodriguez
Earlier this month, Dottie Carmichael, a research scientist from the Public Policy Research Institute (PPRI), presented her team’s findings on bail assessment to judicial and legislative policymakers in Austin, Texas.
In attendance were Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, Texas House of Representative Andrew Murr, Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Sharon Keller, and Texas Senator John Whitmire.
In 2016, the Texas Judicial Council, which is the policy-making body for the judiciary in Texas, asked PPRI to conduct research on the effectiveness of the financial bail system. In addition to Carmichael, four other Texas A&M research scientists helped with the study: George Naufal, Steve Wood, Heather Caspers, and Miner P. Marchbanks, III.
“There are two purposes of bail,” Carmichael said. “First is to ensure you’re going to make your court appearance, and second, to endure you don’t commit new crimes while out in the community.”
Most counties require people charged with a crime to post money for bail before they can be released from jail. However, five counties in Texas are trying a different approach using a research-based risk assessment to decide who can be safely released.
“Where money is required for release, low-risk people who happen to be poor stay in jail to await trial,” Carmichael said. “Meanwhile, someone who may be very dangerous but can afford bail can leave and is free to commit more crimes. More and more research has shown that this doesn’t make sense.”
Where a validated risk assessment system is used, defendants are asked questions that have been shown to predict whether the person will show up to court and not commit more crimes.
“The questions aim to relate how connected you are to your community: Do you have a job? Have you lived here a long time? Do you have a problem with substance abuse?” Carmichael said. “If that interview shows you to be a high risk for bond failure, then you are detained, as much as Texas can detain you.”
Carmichael and her team studied the bail system of two counties: Travis county, which uses risk-assessment; and Tarrant County, which uses the traditional monetary bail system.
“We wanted to see if the risk score in Travis County in fact predict if they are going to commit new offenses, and we found that it does,” Carmichael said. “There’s a strong correlation.”
While the financial bond system correctly placed 72% of defendants according to risk, the risk assessment placed 77% of defendants accurately. In fact, the high-risk defendants who are released because they can afford their bail commit 20% more petty crimes, 12% more violent crimes, and the cost from these crimes are 3.5 times higher than those from the risk-based system.
“In addition to public safety, another key difference is fairness,” Carmichael said. “The risk-based assessment has the advantage there as well. Low-risk defendants shouldn’t have to wait in jail just because they can’t afford to pay a bond.”
Finally, Carmichael said the cost to the community is higher in a financial bail system.
“The front-end cost of having an office to interview defendants and their families is higher,” she said. “But in the financial system, where high-risk defendants are more likely to commit more crimes, the county has to pay for the re-arrest, court hearing, the prosecutor, and the cost of victimization, among others.”
Ultimately pretrial costs in the risk-assessment system are one-third lower the cost to the county than the financial system.
“The key take-away from this study is that the risk assessment system is fairer, safer, and more cost-effective than the financial bail system,” Carmichael said.