Calif. Judges Wowed by Tool to Assess Criminal Defendants

(CN) – At its meeting Thursday, California’s Judicial Council heard presentations on reducing recidivism, evidence-based methods on assessing pretrial risk, and how keeping kids in school can keep them out of jail.

Speaking before a rapt audience of judges, court clerks and other council members, criminal justice professor Edward Latessa said some judges will eyeball defendants who appear before them in the interim between being arrested and going to trial to try to determine whether he or she is a threat to the community or at risk of being rearrested or failing to show up for court dates.

“I call that watermelon thumping,” he said. While some might be adept at choosing a ripe watermelon simply by thumping it, he said, others may succeed only some of the time.

“Some of you are good watermelon thumpers. You have been doing it a long time. But I can assure that the new people to the bench or those new staff or new parole officers is not a good watermelon thumper. Don’t be a watermelon thumper. Use an instrument,” Latessa said.

Latessa, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati, said judges should instead use the Risk Assessment Instrument, a tool that incorporates research, data and controlled study results.

With this tool, judges look at the defendant’s behavior and attitude, previous criminal record, family factors like whether their parents or siblings have been in jail, and whether the defendant has a history of drug abuse. Such factors can help a judge evaluate statistically whether a defendant is at risk of reoffending.

Latessa said no process is perfect, but a good assessment tool can be pretty accurate. Some elements he added, are easier to predict than others.

“Static predictors are easier to measure. If I can count how many times you’ve been arrested, that’s easy. If I know your father has been in prison I can check the box. It’s more difficult to assess criminal attitudes and peer associations and impulsivity. Those things take more work and therefore there’s more variation in the assessment,” Latessa said.

While acute risk factors, like employment, can change quickly, static risk factors take longer. “I’m not going to change your attitude overnight. I’m not going to make you less impulsive overnight. That’s going to take time. We have to work around it,” he said.

The tool is already being used in several states, including Latessa’s native Ohio, where it’s called the Ohio Risk Assessment System.

Judge Todd Bottke of Tehama County, council member and president of the California Judges Association, said he was impressed that a politically conservative state like Ohio had adopted a progressive way of viewing pretrial detainees.

“For that state on a wholesale basis to adopt a paradigm shift is incredible. What you’ve done with that wide-scale adoption is impressive,” Bottke said.

Latessa said the implementation happened under Republican Gov. John Kasich, who said he was tired of building more prisons.

“It was like Nixon going to China. They were able to do it because no one accused them of being soft on crime, so they were able to push it through,” he said.

Latessa’s presentation stems from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s recent initiative to study California’s current pretrial detention system and do away with money bail, a practice she said “may sometimes unfairly penalize the poor.”

Earlier in the meeting, Judges Donna Groman of Los Angeles and Stacy Boulware Eurie of Sacramento told the council that chronic absenteeism and the overuse of harsh discipline such as school suspensions only feed what they called the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” of kids dropping out of school and ending up in juvenile court.

Both judges are part of Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court, an initiative created by Cantil-Sakauye to study how truancy and school discipline put kids at greater risk of run-ins with the juvenile justice system.

“Just anecdotally, 90 percent of our kids that come into the court have issues with school – whether they are not enrolled or they are experiencing expulsions and suspensions at school or they are behind so many credits and the ability to read and do math,” Groman said. “Education is the key to rehabilitation, and if there’s one thing we can do for kids it’s to make sure that they are engaged in education. As a juvenile court judge we want to put ourselves out of business. We want to keep kids out of the pipeline and along with the standards of judicial administration.”

Groman, who presides over a juvenile court in the LA suburb of Compton, said school dropouts are filling the prisons.

“As judges, we really need to take hold of what it is we can do to mitigate this phenomenon of imprisonment of our young people.”