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The Center for Court Innovation today released a new study on risks assessment titled Beyond the Algorithm: Pretrial Reform, Risk Assessment, and Racial Fairness.” With surprisingly little concrete work on how risk assessments may fit into larger strategies to promote racial fairness in pretrial outcomes, the Center, with the support of Arnold Ventures, conducted a first-of-its-kind study that examines the impact of a hypothetical risk assessment on racial disparities. 

In particular, the study sought to understand how risk assessment, when implemented alongside different release policies, could contribute to both decreased pretrial incarceration and decreased racial bias. Drawing on a case study of more than 175,000 defendants in New York City, the study revealed important new data for the field.

What the Center’s report highlights is something we at Arnold Ventures have said for a long time: Risk assessment by itself is not the answer to pretrial reform, but, when paired with release policies that prioritize decarceration and racial justice, it can play an important role in helping jurisdictions bring about meaningful change. The Center authors share that “[i]f the goals are reducing incarceration and promoting racial fairness, then a more targeted use of risk assessments could be of particular benefit to the group that currently experiences the worst pretrial outcomes: defendants of color.”

The Center’s study came to these key conclusions:

  • Business-as-usual approaches to pretrial decision making often fall short of accurately assessing risk and reducing unnecessary pretrial detention.
  • By offering judges additional information, risk assessment can improve subjective decision making. But concerns over risk assessments perpetuating racial disparities are real — even when the assessment itself is deemed to be free of bias, criminal justice data itself is biased.
  • However, even given these concerns, a more targeted use of risk assessments shows the potential for both significantly reducing pretrial detention and alleviating racial disparities.

Arnold Ventures is committed to reducing pretrial incarceration and the use of money bail. We believe pretrial risk assessments, when properly developed and implemented, give judges an objective way to analyze relevant data and make better-informed pretrial decisions that can lead to these outcomes. However, we also recognize that systemic racism has led to issues like the over-policing of communities of color, and this in turn has led to skewed criminal justice data. Reform efforts like ours that rely on data must grapple with these biases. We are strongly committed to reducing racial bias in pretrial decision making. In particular, we seek to understand how risk assessment can be used to reduce racially disparate outcomes. 

Across the board, results from jurisdictions that have implemented the PSA show that when it’s implemented as part of comprehensive pretrial reform, and paired with a policy framework that prioritizes pretrial justice, it can help safely reduce pretrial incarceration rates and does not exacerbate racial disparities. We will continue to rigorously evaluate the impact of PSA implementation and continue to support important research such as the Center’s study. We encourage everyone to explore the study and the conclusions its authors have drawn.