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Crime & Courts

Alaska courts are now using a computer algorithm in bail decisions

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: January 7
  • Published January 7

Pretrial enforcement officers sit in a risk assessment tool training in December at the pretrial enforcement division offices in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In hopes of keeping fewer low-risk, impoverished people in jail before a trial, Alaska began using a computer algorithm last week to help courts set bail.

The new program, developed by a Boston-based institute, is designed to link bail to a defendant's risk of skipping a court date or being arrested for a new crime, instead of their ability to come up with the money.

And for the first time, the state has also hired dozens of officers to supervise defendants who are released before trial.

The changes, both significant shifts in how the state handles accused criminals before trial, took effect Jan. 1. It's the last stage of the multiyear rollout of Senate Bill 91, Alaska's sweeping and contentious effort at criminal justice reform — at the end of the year, the state was still building offices and bracing for technological glitches.

Signed into law in 2016, SB 91 shifts "low-risk" offenders into treatment or community supervision instead of jail cells, an approach that proponents say is cheaper and more effective at stopping convicts from committing subsequent crimes. Critics have asserted the changes mean criminals now face fewer consequences, while supporters say it's a much more cost-effective — and ultimately more successful — way of handling crime.

So far, the state has spent $10.2 million to set up a new Pretrial Enforcement Division. The division is in charge of administering the new bail tool. The tool analyzes a defendant's criminal history, such as the age of the person's first arrest. Then it spits out a score rating their likelihood of skipping court dates or committing a violent crime if released from jail before trial.

Judges will use the score to help decide whether a person should pay bail, and how much, officials said. Bail — money or other property deposited with the court — works an incentive for a higher-risk defendant to show up in court and stay out of trouble after being released from jail before a trial. If the defendant flees or breaks other conditions, the bail can be forfeited to the court.

In Alaska and other states, money-based bail has created inequities over the years, state officials say.

People who were eligible for release but couldn't afford bail or private electronic monitoring were sitting in jail at a rate of $150 a day, said Geri Fox, a former Utah corrections official who was hired to run the new pretrial unit.

Meanwhile, a wealthy person accused of a serious crime was able to pay bail and get out, she said.

With the new scoring system, a judge might decide to let a defendant out instead of setting a $500 bail, Fox said. The judge can also ask for supervision from the state's pretrial services office, or electronic monitoring.

The state embarked on the changes after researchers documented dramatic growth in the number of people who couldn't make bail and were waiting for trial in jail. Between 2005 and 2014, the pretrial population rose 81 percent, according to research conducted by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.

Some states have done away with money bail entirely. Alaska hasn't gone that far, Fox said.

But she said the new risk assessment system is aimed at creating more alternatives to jail for poorer defendants who pose little risk. It makes it more likely that people can keep jobs and homes while awaiting trial, Fox said.

Fox said the new scoring tool doesn't necessarily reflect whether a person is a threat to the community. Judges still make the final call, she said. She said the tool was also tested to make sure it didn't turn out different results based on race or gender.

Meanwhile, the roughly 60 "pretrial enforcement" officers placed around the state will use the computer tool to create reports for judges, and to recommend bail amounts and release conditions.

Those officers will also make house calls and can arrest and detain people who violate conditions of release set by a judge, Fox said. The jobs are much like those of parole or probation officers, except for people who haven't yet been convicted of a crime.

New pretrial enforcement division offices were being constructed early in December. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As part of the supervision, a court could also require drug and alcohol testing, meetings with officers and electronic monitoring.

Until now, that supervision only happened if the defendant hired a private company. Now, it's also paid for by the state, which supporters of SB 91 say is still cheaper than paying for people to stay in jail.

The director of one private company, Dennis Johnson, isn't happy about the new law. He's headed Alaska Pretrial Services since 2009.

Johnson said Thursday that the new state-run pretrial programs are taking away business. He has closed two offices and laid off nine employees. He said other companies have closed down entirely in the past year.

One week into the new system, 20 people were under state supervision, Fox said Thursday. She said nearly 200 risk assessments had been sent to judges.

Judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors said it was too early to say how it was going. Two Anchorage legislators, Bill Wielechowski and Ivy Spohnholz, raised a number of questions in a November letter to corrections Commissioner Dean Williams. They wanted to know how the law would affect private businesses and how much monitoring defendants would receive.

Rick Allen, the Anchorage district attorney, and Dunnington Babb, deputy public defender in the state's criminal division, both said it was still too early to draw overall conclusions. For his part, Allen said he hadn't heard of defendants being improperly released.

Prosecutors reported some issues with the scoring tool, but judges caught those problems, Allen said.

Groups like the ACLU of Alaska have said they'll monitor the courts in the coming months to make sure the system doesn't violate civil rights.

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