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Spokane judges have a new tool to decide whether the right people are in jail

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 12, 2017, 9:14 p.m.

Spokane County criminal justice administrator Jacqueline van Wormer explains a new risk-assessment tool for people charged with crimes at a Jan. 11, 2017 meeting of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council. (Rachel Alexander / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County criminal justice administrator Jacqueline van Wormer explains a new risk-assessment tool for people charged with crimes at a Jan. 11, 2017 meeting of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council. (Rachel Alexander / The Spokesman-Review)

Judges in Spokane County will soon have an easier time deciding whether to send people to jail before trial.

The city and county court systems are rolling out a new risk assessment tool designed to free up space in the aging jail by making sure people aren’t held there simply because they’re too poor to pay a low-cost bond.

It’s a cornerstone of the $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant the county received last year to reduce jail overcrowding and racial disparities.

“We want to make sure we have the right people in the jail,” said Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator.

The tool, called the Spokane Assessment for Evaluation of Risk, or SAFER, weighs factors including a defendant’s age, criminal history and the charge they’re facing to calculate how likely they are to skip out on their court date or commit another crime before trial.

Members of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, who are working on criminal justice reforms as part of the MacArthur grant, said the tool will do a better job of making sure people in jail are there because they pose a risk to community safety.

Currently, “under the money bail system, the people that are in custody are the people who just can’t afford to post” bond, city Public Defender Kathy Knox said.

Elected officials also hope the change will save money by reducing jail overcrowding. Currently, the county spends about $40 million a year on the jail.

“That is not insignificant,” County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said.

SAFER is paired with a beefed-up pretrial services department that can monitor people and call to remind them of court dates. The county used part of the MacArthur grant to hire six new pretrial services officers, and another was added from a separate grant to help defendants with mental health issues.

“One of the hardest jobs we do as judges is making that release decision,” said Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno. Looking at a defendant’s criminal history to try to figure out if they’ll show up to court can be “sort of like a Ouija board,” she said.

Having a risk score from the SAFER tool “allows me to make that decision much more confidently,” Moreno said.

SAFER was developed by Washington State University criminal justice professor Zach Hamilton, who looked at 13,000 Spokane County cases to determine which factors were correlated with greater risk.

Van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator, said age and the crime the person is charged with are two significant predictors. People in their early 20s are more likely to commit additional crimes in part because their brains aren’t fully developed. And being charged with a violent crime makes future violent crimes more likely, especially if the suspect is a man, she said.

SAFER is accurate about 70 percent of the time at predicting whether someone will show up to court or commit another crime, Van Wormer said. Many other risk-assessment tools on the market are in the 55 to 65 percent range. She attributed the difference to the fact that SAFER was built specifically for Spokane, using actual data from local cases.

The tool was rolled out for testing Dec. 28 in Superior Court and is being randomly used on a sampling of defendants during their first appearances, where the judge decides whether to set bond.

Van Wormer said court officials anticipate using SAFER in Municipal Court starting in mid-February and in District Court sometime this spring.


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