A lot of folks are talking about “risk assessment” these days. And that’s good. But it’s important that everyone is clear about what it means (and doesn’t mean) when we use this term. At PJI, risk assessment is almost always accompanied by a handful of other words: pretrial, evidence-based, and actuarial. Here’s why:

Pretrial—The criminal justice system uses risk assessment at different times for a variety of purposes—including decisions about sentencing, incarceration security levels, and conditions for post-adjudication supervision. Needs assessments are a completely separate evaluation done to determine whether an individual might benefit from supports such as substance use or behavioral health treatment—which is important when crafting a good support structure for adjudicated people who may benefit from treatment. Among all of the points at which risk is being assessed, pretrial risk stands out because it focuses on measuring only two specific behaviors—court appearance and rearrest—during a specific time frame—between arrest and trial. As such, the factors used to determine pretrial risk level (e.g., prior convictions) and the comparison cases (similar people released before trial in the recent past) are far more limited than those used in other risk assessments. This makes pretrial tools and their results much more accurate.

Evidence-based—The fact is, some kind of risk assessment happens every time a person appears before a court officer charged with making a bail decision. Their assessment can range from a purely subjective, visual analysis—does the person look risky?—to something more objective and, one hopes, fairer. Many early objective tools looked at the strength of the person’s ties to the community—things like home ownership and local family members—and required an interview with the arrested person. Subsequent statistical analysis showed, however, that those things not only don’t matter, but they can unfairly favor wealthier people. Today’s evidence-based tools—the product of ongoing data analysis—have not been shown to exacerbate or institutionalize any bias; instead they are and can be used to narrow the likelihood of bias. And this is about capturing data about decisions that heretofore were opaque.

Actuarial—When we talk about actuarial pretrial risk assessment, we are referring to tools that have been developed using statistical analysis of carefully gathered data; in this case, as many relevant cases of previous pretrial behavior as possible. The Public Safety Assessment (PSA) developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, for example, is based upon statistical analysis of 1.5 million cases across 300 jurisdictions. This is no different than auto insurers measuring your likelihood of getting into an accident based on the previous accidents of other people—except, as discussed above, it is much more narrowly focused.

Compared to purely subjective decision making, or tools that measure a broad range of behavior over an extended period of time, evidence-based, actuarial pretrial risk assessments are a compelling improvement. They deliver better results for accused people and for the systems that use them. And as the process of collecting and analyzing past case data continues, evidence-based, actuarial pretrial risk assessment promises to deliver even better results going forward.

There’s a lot more to talk about here and we will. Share your two cents in UP. And stay tuned.


By Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer

Last week, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul introduced SB 1539, the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017, which encourages states to move away from money bond and ensure they are using legal and evidence-based pretrial justice practices. We were delighted to have been able to support the drafters of this bill and to work with partner organizations to gather up support. This is a bipartisan effort, sponsored by two senators with pretrial justice wins at home—California is poised to pass sweeping legislation (Assembly Bill 42 and Senate Bill 10) and Kentucky was the first state to deploy the Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment statewide.

Why does it matter if Congress weighs in on bail reform? Isn’t bail a state and local function? (more…)


“Planet Money,” NPR’s popular podcast (“The Economy Explained”), recently explored New Jersey’s shift away from money-based pretrial justice. Episode 783: New Jersey Bails Out is worth listening to and sharing with anyone who wants to understand this historic change—which is rapidly becoming a model for the nation.

In less than 20 minutes, Joel Rose and Keith Romer expose the injustice of detaining low-risk poor and working class people who cannot afford bail and the dangers of releasing higher-risk people who can. They also explain the basics of pretrial risk assessment, and highlights why, in just a few months, the new system has been so successful.

NPR’s reporting complements Improving Pretrial Justice in New Jersey, a candid interview with one of the architects of the new system that PJI produced as part of the 3DaysCount campaign to set a new standard for pretrial justice in America.  


A new report out of San Francisco underscores—once again—how money bail fails the jurisdictions that use it and the people forced to pay for their liberty.

Do the Math: Money Bail Doesn’t Add Up for San Francisco, issued by the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector of the City & County, details how the city’s current practices create a two-tiered system—one for those with money and another for those without—that siphons wealth away from the poorest communities and into the pockets of predatory, poorly regulated corporate surety companies. (more…)


The following first appeared as a guest post on Facing Addiction's blog, News and Updates:

When I met Greg Williams, he shared with me his personal story and why he started Facing Addiction. He told me how important it was to him to bring together people affected by addiction and have them come out of the shadows of shame so they could leverage their collective political power. If he could empower the “anonymous people” affected by the policies being implemented on their behalf, he said, the narrative around addiction would change. And he told me about all the audacious ideas, concerts, and marches he pulled off (with a ton of help). I recognized in him a kindred spirit and committed to working with him in any way I could.

My name is Cherise and I lead a 40-year-old organization dedicated to bringing pretrial justice to millions of people who are arrested and booked each year into our nation’s jails. These people face a bleak choice: plead guilty to get out, or find the money to post a bond. Most often, they have to contract with and pay a for-profit commercial bail bonding industry, which— incredibly! —holds the keys to their jail cell. (more…)