New pre-trial release program relies on risk assessment

Published: Dec. 6, 2016 at 6:20 PM PST
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There have always been two concerns when someone first stands in front of a judge accused of a crime--keeping the public safe by ensuring they don't commit more crimes while waiting for trial and making sure they show up for all the court appearances to follow.

The courts have addressed those concerns by making the accused post bond in order to be released before trial. For those of means, that's meant freedom. For those who lack financial resources, it's a different matter.

"There are people who can be safely managed in the community and the only reason they are not is they don't have any money whatsoever," says Washoe District Court Judge Elliott Sattler, who has administrative oversight responsibilities for the county's pretrial services.

"The flip side of the coin is there are people who are released who are a danger to the community and they are being released simply because they do have money."

So, Nevada courts are trying something different--a pretrial release program that relies on a risk assessment of each defendant.

"You and I may face the same charges," says Heather Condon, the pretrial services program manager, "but the case may be very different and the risk may be very different. And we're just trying to identify that risk."

That could mean a low-risk, first-time offender being released without bail, but it could also keep a dangerous defendant away from the public.

"You may have somebody who has committed a very serious felony offense like sexual assault and if there's just a standard bail amount in place, that person can post it. That person is out in the community and not being supervised at all. We don't know what they are doing."

The program has been in effect since November 1, 2016.

So far, it seems to be working. In Clark County and Ely, those released without bail have--to a person--have shown up for their court dates. Here in Washoe County, where all seven local courts are participating, it's also been an early success.

"It's helping the community because we are making the community safer by... we are making sure the dangerous people are where they belong," says Sattler. "And the people who aren't dangerous but are simply indigent aren't in jail needlessly."

Although reducing the jail population is not the goal, it is a potential benefit. It costs $109 a day to maintain someone in jail. Much less, if anything, if they are able to be released.

This pilot program will be evaluated in March and though the courts say it's working, not everyone is happy about it.

Local bail bondsmen say they weren't adequately included in the conversations that led to the program and they say it is illegal. In fact one spokesman believes Washoe County courts have been operating illegally on this issue since November 1.