High-tech bail tool helps decide who stays in jail, who is released

YAKIMA, Wash. — Criminal justice systems throughout Washington state are exploring ways to keep more crime suspects out of jail; especially those too poor to post bail.

The proposed changes are similar to what Seattle Seahawks' Doug Baldwin has been demanding in recent months, and are already in place in Yakima County.

Deep in the basement of the courthouse on North 2nd Street in the Central Washington city’s downtown core, Yakima County Pretrial Services Administrative Supervisor Jennifer Wilcox spends her days trying to determine whether men and women arrested for allegedly committing various crimes should be released from jail.

She enters the suspect's criminal history into a computer program known as the Arnold Tool.

The outcome is called a Public Safety Assessment and identifies various risk factors, including whether the suspect’s arrest was for a violent offense or whether the suspect has any prior felony or misdemeanor convictions.

How the suspect scores will help determine whether the man or woman remains behind bars on bond, or is let out of jail without having to post any bail at all after an initial court appearance hours later.

The ultimate release decision is left to the judge however, if the suspect is released, “we supervise them at the level recommended by the Risk Assessment,” Wilcox told KIRO 7.

Yakima County made the pretrial changes in 2016 after a study revealed 60% of all people behind bars in the county were being held pending trial, simply because they could not afford bail.

“In other words, they had not been convicted of anything and they were waiting to have their day in court,” Yakima County Superior Court Judge Richard Bartheld said.

“Fundamental fairness requires that we treat everyone equally, and we also treat people that are accused of crimes as innocent until they are proven guilty.”

So instead of demanding bail from every defendant, Yakima County now releases about 50% of all crime suspects without bail, according to Bartheld.

Many are then ordered to pretrial services supervision, which requires regular check-ins with the court, or some other requirement to make sure the suspect is not reoffending.

In Yakima, Bartheld and Wilcox say it's working.

“We have an about 89% success rate,” Bartheld told KIRO 7.  “89% of the people who are being released are not committing new offenses.”

The money-based bail system is being examined all over the country. In King County, Superior Court criminal Judge Theresa Doyle recently asked County Council members to examine ways to safely release more people from jail pending their criminal trial dates.

“People who are incarcerated pretrial for as little as 24-hours are more likely to commit future crimes,” Judge Doyle told King County Council members at a meeting in October.

“So the question for us is, if we are putting people who don’t need to be behind bars, are we actually creating recidivism?”

However, KIRO 7 has reported on many recent crimes where suspects released from jail without having to post any bail continued to commit more crimes. Many of those crimes were committed near the King County Courthouse, where 29-year-old Ibrahima Diallo allegedly assaulted multiple people in a single day.

Sgt. Ryan Abbott, of the King County Sheriff’s Office, told KIRO 7 in July that Diallo punched one of the victims “in the stomach.  We don’t know why.  He’s never met her.”

Many release decisions eventually fall into the lap of King County Superior Court Judge Sean O'Donnell, who handles the incredibly busy arraignment calendar every weekday.

“I can have between 25 and 50 people before me on a given morning, and I am making decisions on each of those cases, whether someone is staying our getting out” of jail, O’Donnell told KIRO 7.

O’Donnell admits, when somebody who has been released from jail without posting bail is suspected of committing additional crimes – as Ibrahima Diallo allegedly did, multiple times – O’Donnell hears about it “all the time.”

“They’re probably the most difficult decisions that a judge can make because of their impact on community safety” he said.

Community safety was put at risk time after time when Jason L. Lewis allegedly went on a 15-minute destructive spree at the downtown Seattle Target this past August, terrorizing workers and customers.

Lewis was arrested later that day for breaking into a car, but was let out of the King County Jail the next day without having to post any bail, according to court documents. The Seattle Police Department told KIRO 7 that Lewis went right back to the same Target and stole for three straight days before he was arrested again.

This time, however, Lewis remains behind bars in lieu of a $13,000 bond he has not yet paid.

Judge O'Donnell said it's impossible to know what a suspect will do in the future, and very difficult to assess that risk, without more time to consider each release decision and more information about each suspect. “One of the things that trial judges across Washington have recognized is, we can probably do a better job in terms of the information that we have,” he said.

To that end, O'Donnell confirms the risk assessment computer program used in Yakima -- and others like it -- are being considered statewide; to help make release decisions based more on a suspect's potential violence, instead of his or her ability to pay bail.

Baldwin has been supporting such changes to the state's bail system for months. "The cash bail system is an antiquated system," Baldwin told KIRO 7 in late September.  "We are waging a war on poor people when we should be waging a war on poverty."

Yakima County Judge Richard Bartheld believes Baldwin’s message is “sound.”

In addition to providing more equity for the poor, Yakima County's new system also provides more fairness based on the color of a suspect's skin, according to Jennifer Wilcox.

“The racial disparity was absolutely closed. If you’d have asked me if there was a racial disparity in decision-making in Yakima, I would have said no. But the levels of Latino Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans and whites being released is level across the board now, which is huge,” she said.

The racial disparity that existed under a mostly cash-based bail system “has been completely resolved.”

Judge Bartheld added the court is now “trying to make the right decisions regarding those people who should really be released pending trial, that could not seek their release because they cannot afford bail. And really, that comes down to the fundamental issue of what’s fair.”

Neither Judge Bartheld nor Judge O’Donnell believe Washington state will eliminate bail completely because some suspects are too violent to be in the community.  In order to keep such suspects behind bars in states that have done away with bail, a detention hearing must be held, and Bartheld said that can sometime take days, if not months.

However, both judges believe big changes will be coming statewide.

They also believe more pretrial services for mentally ill and drug addicted suspects would benefit community safety far more than widespread incarceration pending trial.

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