The same week a Baton Rouge woman was brutally stabbed by her boyfriend who’d hours earlier bonded out of jail on a domestic abuse count, officials here huddled to discuss a tool they hope will flag the offenders most likely to commit another act of violence.
The instrument is the latest way local authorities hope to prevent crime — including domestic attacks — by borrowing from what’s done in other cities and states.
But criminal justice leaders believe this risk assessment tool also could serve another purpose — to identify pretrial detainees who could just as well be released instead of remaining in the East Baton Rouge Parish jail system, which has grown so crowded that hundreds of inmates need to be housed miles away in other parishes.
Across Louisiana, cities such as New Orleans and Lafayette have adopted a version of the algorithm to weed out people who aren’t violent and to keep in jail those who pose a risk.
But the concept hasn’t won universal support, with many criminal judges in New Orleans questioning whether the evaluation system established there is worth the time and expense. At least one judge at the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge raised similar concerns, saying the proposed tool could simply add noise to the already complicated decisions judges make when setting bail for defendants.
The tool is a 20-minute questionnaire given to each person booked into the jail, with a fact check provided from the arrestee’s rap sheet. Answers to the questions — which range from a defendant’s criminal history to financial and family situation to drug use — are weighted. The survey spits out a number that advocates say is a straightforward indicator of how likely that person is to commit violence, and it would be considered by judges in determining that person’s bond.
Proponents in New Orleans and Lafayette believe it’s been an effective tool in helping lower their jail populations. East Baton Rouge Parish is considering adopting a list of questions used in Kentucky, which is often touted as a model in reforming pretrial court practices.
“The risk assessment tool will help us catch the more serious, or the high-risk (offenders),” said Melanie Fields, an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney. For low-risk defendants, she said, “it will maybe make it a little easier for them to get out.”
Defendants still would face the prospect of trial, but the tool would better instruct whether they should remain in jail while they wait, proponents say. Risk assessment was initially mandated under the first version of Gwen’s Law — a measure passed last year and named after a woman who was murdered by a husband who repeatedly abused her — but was excised in a revision this past legislative session.
Fields was one of several people — including Baton Rouge Area Foundation leader John Davies, BRAF project manager Patricia Calfee, corrections expert and lawyer Keith Nordyke, East Baton Rouge District Defender Mike Mitchell, Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office Corrections Director Rob Reardon and others — who met in East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III’s office Thursday to explore how a risk assessment tool could be implemented here.
Reardon, who’s overseen Lafayette’s risk assessment program since it began 12 years ago, says it allowed the jail to screen out 1,000 people last year who otherwise might have been held in custody awaiting trial. Instead, the project referred those people to social services depending on their needs.
Baton Rouge’s juvenile justice department also uses the system, which released 202 children found not to pose a risk to the public last year, said Department of Juvenile Services interim Director Deron Patin.
But 19th Judicial District Court Judge Bonnie Jackson said she’d need more convincing that the risk assessment tool offers information she isn’t already receiving through the current system.
Judges already carefully consider the details of a crime and a defendant’s prior criminal history, she said. After scanning over a proposed risk assessment survey — which included questions like “Does the defendant have prior felony convictions?” — she said the formula could end up being redundant.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to me to take this and apply it,” she said.
Jackson is the judge who assigned a $1,500 bail in late September to Anthony McKinney, the man shot by a deputy on Sept. 26 while stabbing his girlfriend, who is still hospitalized for her wounds. She said no judge wants to see anyone get hurt, and ultimately, it’s impossible to predict whether a person will lash out.
The dynamics of domestic violence are far more complex than people realize, she said.
Jackson said she takes seriously the possibility a domestic abuser could retaliate against a victim, and she is open to suggestions from anti-domestic violence advocates on certain red-flag behaviors she should be on the lookout for with defendants.
“It is frustrating for me as a judge to try to decide, ‘Is this a case where somebody is going to get killed?’ What do I do when the victim is coming and she’s pleading with me, ‘I want him at home; we need him at home’? ” she asked. “I’m being put in a situation where there’s just no clear answers.”
Supporters of the algorithm say it will help sort out the murkiness of bail decisions, which are subject to the whims and logic of individual judges.
Another 19th Judicial District Court judge, Louis Daniel, said he hasn’t evaluated the risk assessment tool in question.
But, he said, “I’m in favor of judges having as much information as possible when they set bond. When I started work here as a judge 19 years ago, we didn’t even have rap sheets generally.”
East Baton Rouge Parish likely would have to hire new people trained in operating the risk assessment tool and somehow integrate them into the jail booking process, Moore said. He has not yet figured out where the funding would come from, he said.
The New Orleans risk assessment program costs the city more than $600,000 a year, said its director, Veronica Cunningham, of the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that contracts with the city.
Judges there have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the project’s cost-effectiveness since it began in 2012, but Vera leaders say the project saves money overall by winnowing out people who do not need to be incarcerated.
Reardon, the Lafayette corrections official, said he hopes to continue a conversation in Louisiana to reform the jail system.
“We have to do a much better job identifying those individuals who we fear and keeping those people behind bars, versus those people that we’re just mad at.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.