Earlier this year, Iowa's most populous county, Polk, became a guinea pig for using computerized risk assessments in making pre-trial release decisions. Now Scott, Linn, and Woodbury County are joining the experiment. This expanded experiment is being implemented without any legislative review or direction and the early results are not promising and it is Iowans who will pay the price.
Computerized risk assessments are replacing our tried-and-true pretrial release process, leaving judges with significantly less information about a defendant before releasing them from jail. Previously, detailed, in-person interviews provided judges with important facts, such as information regarding a defendant’s mental health, substance abuse addictions, employment status, state of residency, community and family ties, among several others.
That full picture is being replaced with drastically reduced bits of information spit out by a computer. Zach Dal Pra, director of an out-of-state organization helping implement the experiment in Polk County, acknowledged that not only do judges have less information, but the information they do receive from the computer can be inaccurate. And considering the state’s illogical and contractual goal of essentially handcuffing a judge to follow the computer’s release recommendation 80 percent of the time in certain situations, we all should be concerned.
This radically different and concerning approach harms traditional notions of justice. An Assistant Polk County Attorney commented during a forum in Des Moines: under the new system, there are already indications of increases in defendants failing to appear in court for proceedings. This sad reality, already experienced by other jurisdictions, will undoubtedly result in delayed justice, or perhaps no justice at all for countless victims, defendants, and our community as a whole.
Additionally, as a New Jersey detective who has experienced such a system put it: “[n]obody’s afraid to commit crimes anymore. They’re not afraid of being arrested, because they know at the end of the day, they’re going to be released. It’s catch and release. You’re chasing around the same people over and over again. They’re being released and going back and offending and now you have more people as victims.”
We are already beginning to see similar “catch-and-release” problems in Iowa. For example, one defendant in Scott County was arrested and charged with Carrying Weapons, Interference with Official Acts (not complying with police orders), and Theft 2nd (for allegedly stealing a car). Despite this, the computer assessment recommended release – it did not recommend requiring any financial incentive, such as bail, to ensure his return to court. And just two days after being released, the defendant is now accused of intimidating a victim with a dangerous weapon. The defendant is now on the run. This example is just one of numerous catch-and-release problems now occurring in Iowa that require our law enforcement and courts to unnecessarily spend additional time and taxpayer money resolving.
We must also look at the financial costs such a program has on our community – especially considering that the State of Iowa and our courts are dealing with difficult budget issues. Unfortunately, this experiment does not lower costs or save taxpayers money; rather, as it has in other jurisdictions, costs are increasing. In fact, less than two months after launching the limited experiment in Polk County, the county already hired an additional person and reassigned many others to help run the project. Moreover, as it more fully rolls out, there will be exponentially more defendants under county supervision, which will require additional taxpayer-funded resources to track and supervise those defendants - work currently undertaken by private industry and at no cost to taxpayers.
Iowa’s historic system of pre-trial release involving both a thorough assessment by a judge and the incentives and penalties involved in posting bail have served us well over the years. Putting a computer in charge is the wrong step for Iowa.
Gross is an attorney at BrownWinick in Des Moines. BrownWinick represents Lederman Bail Bonds.