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WSU Spokane professor picked to provide new criminal risk assessment tool

Spokane is partnering with a professor from Washington State University to design a survey that’s expected to do a better job of putting dangerous criminals in jail and pairing lower-risk offenders with the resources they need.

Spokane County commissioners signed a $70,000 contract with Zach Hamilton earlier this month to design a new risk assessment tool for Spokane’s criminal justice system. The county and city will each pay $35,000 toward laying the groundwork for the new survey.

“What they’re using right now is OK,” said Hamilton, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at WSU’s Spokane campus. “It’s not as customized or tailored to the particular needs of the community.”

For the past three years, Hamilton has been developing a similar tool for the Washington Department of Corrections. The new assessment will incorporate information about an alleged offender’s mental health care history, criminal past, employment history and other psychological factors to decide if the person should be held in jail prior to trial, or if they should be referred to other programs.

“This will be based on the actual population that goes through the county jail, not just an instrument from off the shelf,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s colleague, Jackie van Wormer, recommended him for the job. Van Wormer heads the Spokane County Law and Justice Council and called Hamilton’s work some of the best worldwide on risk assessment.

The use of a standardized tool across all levels of the criminal justice system, one that follows an offender through their interactions with law enforcement, courts and the jail, is a recommendation contained in the “Blueprint for Reform,” a document authored more than two years ago outlining priorities for change in Spokane’s legal system.

“Research has clearly demonstrated that adoption of evidence-based practices, and the standardized use of risk/needs assessment tools reduces recidivism at greater rates than historical practices,” the document said in 2013. The authors noted that adoption of a more advanced risk assessment tool in juvenile courts led to a 40 percent reduction in detention, with crime levels remaining relatively steady.

Cheryl Tofsrud, manager of Spokane County’s Pre-Trial Services program, said her office would likely see changes once the new tool is implemented, as much of the workload will shift to initial contact with offenders.

“It’s moving away from the imposition of financial conditions to get out of jail,” Tofsrud said of the new system. “It will be based on risk, rather than the ability to post a bond that isn’t going to do anything to protect the community.”

All parties will work off the document to make recommendations on confinement, bail and what services an offender should receive, but prosecutors and defense attorneys still will provide their analysis to a judge, who will make the final decision about where a person will wind up prior to trial, Tofsrud said.

“It’s not going to make decisions for people,” she said. “It will be a guiding tool. There will be professional judgment in there as well.”

Hamilton said the new tool should work seamlessly with existing technology in the county.


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