Court Report

Here in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, you have probably heard about the “Arnold Tool” in regards to pretrial release from one of our many local news outlets.

John Chavez
Magistrate Judge

It is actually called the Public Safety Assessment and is a research-based model that evaluates the likelihood that an arrested person will return to court and abide by the law if released while awaiting trial. The PSA was developed by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization, through research of 750,000 criminal cases across the country.

The PSA takes into account factors, such as a person’s past and current criminal history as well as whether they previously failed to appear in court. The assessment produces scores that result in a recommendation to a judge on the appropriate level of supervision, if a defendant is released from custody. It is important to remember that the law — not the PSA — governs whether a person will remain free while awaiting trial.

The New Mexico Constitution requires that people charged with a crime be released pending trial, except in limited instances. When releasing someone pretrial, a judge is to impose the least restrictive conditions needed for the person to return to court and for safeguarding the community. These conditions of release could range from a promise to appear at future hearings up to high pretrial monitoring.

When I hear concerns about this decision-making process, I often note people seem to believe that judges follow the PSA’s recommendation on its face without considering other factors. Simply put, this is not the case.

Judges consider this as a single piece of information along with a report with a summary of an individual’s criminal history obtained from the National Crime Information Center.

Additionally judges consider a wide range of  factors outlined in a New Mexico Supreme Court-approved rule that governs pretrial release, often called “401 considerations” after the numbering used for  criminal court procedural rules. These considerations are the same for District, Magistrate, Metropolitan, and Municipal Courts.

Some of the factors include the nature and circumstances of the offense charged, including whether the offense is a crime of violence or involves alcohol or drugs; the weight of the evidence against the defendant; the nature and seriousness of the danger to any person or the community — just to name but a few.

I have only had access to the Public Safety Assessment since July of last year. Before that, I still had a responsibility to assess all of the factors noted above in the procedural rules for pretrial release decisions. For information potentially indicating whether a defendant might fail to appear for future court hearings or be re-arrested if released, I used our court case database and a National Crime Information Center report I receive daily from the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.

To manage this task, I developed my own evaluation criteria for assessing the likelihood of new criminal arrest if released and failure to appear history. I assume other judges did and/or do the same.

Not all courts have access to the Public Safety Assessment, but a statewide rollout is well underway. I will admit I had a healthy skepticism of this new process as it came to Valencia County. I asked a lot of questions and, for several months, I did duplicative work comparing my system against the PSA.

So what changed for me? Not much really. I simply recognized that my own criteria, while informative to me was not perhaps transferable to another judge in another part of the state or even to another court in the same county.

The Public Safety Assessment simply standardizes the evaluation criteria and its reliability has been validated by research, including in New Mexico. I quickly gained confidence in the report and now rely on it for the factors that it is intended to address.

To underscore an important point, I will say again, the Public Safety Assessment is a tool providing information to judges to consider along with a wide variety of other factors when making a release decision. It informs the judge, it does not direct the judge.

In place for people charged with a felony is an option for the district attorney to file a motion for the pretrial detention of the defendant. At a hearing before a district court judge, the state must prove — by clear and convincing evidence — that detention is necessary because no release conditions will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.

As use of the PSA expands statewide, I am certain discussions will continue as communities and courts better understand the valuable information it provides judges for decision-making early in a criminal case.

My hope with this column is to provide a perspective from someone who uses these tools daily and to inform this continuing dialogue.

(Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate  in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)

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Judge John Chavez, guest columnist

Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.