Spokane Courts testing new risk assessment tool


It’s a normal day at Spokane Superior Court.

Judge Annette Plese is calling the names of the inmates listed on the first appearance docket.

After the prosecutors and defense attorneys make their statements, Judge Plese decides whether to set a bond amount. In most cases, she does.

“So more people are in custody who shouldn't be in custody just because of their poverty,” said Spokane Public Defender, Kathy Knox. “It’s not a fair system were people might plead guilty to something that they otherwise might not because of bond.”

Knox says many of the inmates at first appearance hearings will spend time in a cell simply because they can't afford to get out.

But on the other hand, Knox says by the time the worst-of-the-worst offenders come up, there's no room for them in the jail.

So, how can judges know that tomorrow’s crime won’t be committed today?

Spokane County Regional Criminal Justice Administrator, Jacqueline van Wormer, might have the answer.

“Who are the most high risk and needs to be detained to keep the community safe, versus those who can be safely released into the community and supervised by pretrial services?” said Wormer.

Wormer helped implement a new tool called SAFER.

SAFER was paid for as part of a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant, and it lets the computer be the judge.

The algorithm uses regional data to calculate several factors a judge can use during pre-trial hearings.

First, it looks at the individual’s probability to commit a violent, property, or drug related crime if released.

Then, it computes the chance they might miss their next court appearance, or commit a crime once released.

“It takes all of these factors together and generates a score for a judge to tell whether the individual is low, moderate, or high risk for recidivism, or to commit a crime if they were released from jail,” said Wormer.

So why is Spokane testing this tool?

The jail is currently built to house 650 inmates, but the current population is 960. Fifty-five to 75 percent of inmates are presumed innocent. And the consequences of holding a low-risk offender for eight to14 days instead of 24 hours are alarming.

Wormer says those inmates will likely become guilty by association. In other words, the more time they spend with a known criminal, the more likely they are to become one.

And the numbers don't lie.

Fifty-six percent are more likely to be rearrested before trial, and 51 percent are more likely to commit another crime after completing their sentence.

So, can a computer program truly predict your future to commit a crime?

Only time and math will tell, but as time goes on, the smarter the tool becomes because uses updated local data to improve accuracy.

“Its anywhere from .71 to .74 percent in predictive accuracy,” said Wormer.

SAFER is currently being tested in the courts and Wormer says they are assessing the tools performance to make sure it's not keeping the good guys in and the bad guys out.

SAFER is the product of Washington State University Criminal Justice Professor, Zachary Hamilton. It is being used six times a day in county court. Wormer says they will report results to the Criminal Justice Council twice a year.

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