A Tale of Two Counties...in Texas


A new study from Texas A&M University reveals some striking comparisons between two Texas counties with very different approaches to pretrial release decisionmaking: Tarrant County, which relies almost exclusively on money bail, and Travis County, which relies largely on validated risk assessment to inform release decisions without financial requirements. The study has significant implications for Texas, where only five counties out of 254 report using a validated risk assessment.

The study, conducted at the request of the Texas Judicial Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, analyzed 3.5 years of criminal case data from both counties. Major findings include,

  • The risk assessment tool used by Travis County, the Ohio Risk Assessment System–Pretrial Assessment Tool or ORAS-PAT, was an accurate predictor of the statistical likelihood of new offenses. Moreover, ORAS-PAT was used meaningfully by the pretrial officers and the courts; the ORAS-PAT score predicted the detention decision 80% of the time.
  • While the ORAS-PAT is a valid and effective tool for Travis County, the interview process required to use the ORAS-PAT may be too costly or time-consuming for many counties.
  • Researchers were able to construct a statistical model to predict the judge’s detention decision 84% of the time, meaning that it was possible to create automated risk assessments based on information in local court record systems. The study noted that the Public Safety Assessment-Court (PSA-Court) developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation may be a good option for jurisdictions lacking the resources to develop and validate their own instrument.
  • Validated risk assessment resulted in better classification than money bail. Among those detained, 12% more of those released under Tarrant County’s money bond system had a statistical risk profile indicating that they might threaten public safety than those released in Travis County. Moreover, among those detained, 24% more could have been safely released in Tarrant County compared to Travis County.
  • The cost of administering a risk-informed release system is more than offset by proper classification decisions. While pretrial program costs were higher in Travis County ($406 per person vs. $263 per person in Tarrant County), Travis County also realized significant savings through reductions in costs to victims and detention costs. In Tarrant County, the victim costs per defendant were $469, compared to $133 in Travis County.
  • In both systems, detention was the single-largest expenditure, comprising about half the overall costs. In Travis County, the cost of detention was lower because the use of a risk assessment tool saw defendants spending fewer days in jail following initial arrest. Most notably, among individuals still detained after the fourth day of arrest, the average length of detention in Tarrant County (the money bail county) was 47 days, vs. 37 days in Travis County. Those ten days cost Tarrant County an average of $300 per defendant because of the delay.
  • Travis County’s risk-informed pretrial release system removes poverty as an impediment to release, creating a fairer system for defendants. In Tarrant County’s financial release system, three times as many low-risk defendants are detained than in the risk-informed system. In fact, one out of every ten Tarrant County defendants is held on a low bond until disposition, even though they have a low chance of failure if released. As the authors noted, removing financial barriers to release creates a fairer system because individuals have less pressure to plead guilty and can assist their attorneys in their defense. “While financial incentives for developing risk-informed pretrial systems are important, improving access to justice is at least equally compelling,” note the authors.

The study concludes with several recommendations, including an amendment to the Texas Constitution to create a presumption of pretrial release through personal bond and to permit preventive detention under limited circumstances with due process protections, as well as the implementation of validated risk assessments statewide, with corresponding supervision capacity and training support.

To read the entire report, go to http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1437499/170308_bond-study-report.pdf.


Comments are closed.