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New Technology Analyzes Defendants' Risk To Public Safety

Minnehaha County officials are implementing a new assessment that flags defendants who present a risk to the community. The effort is designed to help judges determine whether someone accused of crime should be released before trial. The process combines multiple factors but eliminates identifiers such as race, income, education, and family status.

Judge Doug Hoffman says the new Public Safety Assessment crystallizes key factors for judges, and it provides a score to inform decision-makers about the risk a defendant poses to other people. He says that’s an objective piece of the analysis.

"But you’re also assessing the demeanor of the individual when they’re in court – their presentation, how they describe. The judge can ask the defendant questions," Hoffman says. "We hear from counsel. We always hear from the state’s attorney’s office, and they always have a very important perspective in a particular case, and the defense counsel provides us with some background information that we might not otherwise know."

The Public Safety Assessment considers nine factors such as violent crimes, missing court dates and age – and it weights them based on how those factors relate to community risk. Hoffman says it’s more efficient than clicking through individual files to analyze those factors in a judge’s mind.

"We have a lot of information that’s accessible, but it takes quite a bit of time to pull all of that information together. You know, in the old days when you had one case set for a 15-minute period of time, it wasn’t that critical, but now when we’ve got 30 [or] 40 people in the courtroom...," Hoffman says. He says he can’t comprehensively examine individual histories and circumstances for every defendant.

Minnehaha County officials hope to launch the Public Safety Assessment in January with full implementation one year from now.

The Minnehaha County Sheriff says he wants to ensure the new criminal justice assessment doesn’t jeopardize public safety. Sheriff Mike Milstead says he believes the new scoring system accurately helps determine which people should remain in custody and which are safe to release before a trial

"I talk about the jail operation and taking sometimes 70 [or] 80 people over to the courthouse. If those judges are able to have this scored tool in front of them when they’re making these decisions, it’s going to make the entire justice system here more efficient," Milstead says. "It’s going to provide them with better details to help make the decisions that they’re going to make, yet it’s still in their hands to make that decision whether they’re going to release someone into the community or not."

County officials say the goal is to score a pretrial assessment within 24 hours of booking – or two days on a weekend.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation developed the assessment tool. They’re granting Minnehaha County help with technology and training to apply the process in South Dakota. Learn more about the process and assessment here.