Pretrial Services: Virginia’s Boondoggle

Current Status (continued)

The current status section describes a brief history of pretrial services, it’s implementation throughout the state, funding, and what it is doing.

Risk Assessment

Many jurisdictions have implemented pretrial risk assessment instruments (PRAIs) to help gauge defendants’ flight risk and threat to the community. These tools weigh common factors, such as current charges, previous failure to appears, and drug usage, in an attempt to predict failure to appears in court and/or danger to the community.

pretrial services agentFor the past several years, Virginia has been a leader in the development of risk assessment implementation. The Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (VPRAI) has been copied in many jurisdictions across the country.

In 2017, Virginia implemented the VPRAI-R (Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument – Revised) along with a supervision tool called Praxis. VPRAI-R weighs responses to questions which generate a risk level score. Praxis is a tool which takes that VPRAI-R risk score, along with the current charge(s), and determines a supervision level.

The assessment of the defendant is based on common factors which are predictive of failure to appears in court or threats to the community. These factors are largely intuitive. Examples include current charges, criminal history, number of failure to appears, etc. VPRAI-R recently modified some of these factors, which, as a bondsman, I found some to be curious. The modifications of note are:

  • “Current charge” was changed to felony drug, theft, or fraud charge
    [ Does this mean all other types of charges, (i.e. assault/violence, weapons, etc) are overlooked? ]
  • “Employment stability” was changed to “unemployed at the time of arrest”
    [ I found this to be very questionable. For example, suppose the defendant was unemployed for 18 months and has been working at a restaurant for one month. That would not be considered stable under any formula. ]
  • Length of residence was removed as a risk factor.
    [ As a matter of common sense, the stability of a defendant’s address is an important factor when evaluating risk. It simply doesn’t make sense to remove it. ]

There are other considerations to risk assessments which are often overlooked, such as:

  1. It is extremely expensive to implement. Defendants have to be interviewed which is resource intensive2,
  2. many jurisdictions rely on tools and data from other jurisdictions, and thus obtain different samples which may prove to be unsound for their specific population3, and
  3. criticisms exist for these programs for fostering discrimination against minorities due to the demographics.

While these risk assessment implementations are often lauded as bringing tremendous improvements to pretrial criminal justice, the results warrant a healthy skepticism. Their supporters continually crow how these tools improve their record in terms of their placements showing up to court or committing crimes during pretrial release. But what are they comparing it to?

At least for pretrial services in Virginia, it is extremely difficult to get any real results or data showing these programs deliver on these claims. As this study clearly shows, pretrial services has no inclination to divulge any substantive data. If that remains the case, then perhaps it’s all just a waste of resources and taxpayer money.

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