The Empirical Case for Pretrial Risk Assessment Instruments
Pretrial risk assessment instruments are used in many jurisdictions to inform decisions regarding pretrial release and conditions. Many are concerned that the use of pretrial risk assessment instruments may be contributing to worsened, not improved, pretrial outcomes, including increased rates of pretrial detention and exacerbated racial disparities in pretrial decisions. These concerns have led prominent organizations to reverse their position on the role of pretrial risk assessment instruments in pretrial system change. Reforms that centered on their use have been rolled back or have failed to be implemented in the first place. However, the scientific evidence behind these concerns is lacking. Instead, the findings of rigorous research show that the results of pretrial risk assessment instruments demonstrate good accuracy in predicting new criminal activity, including violent crime, during the pretrial period, even when there are differences between groups defined by race and ethnicity. Furthermore, the scientific evidence suggests they can be an effective strategy to help achieve pretrial system change, including reducing pretrial detention for people of color and white people, alike, when their results are actually used to inform decision-making. In this article, we review the scientific evidence in relation to three primary critiques of pretrial risk assessment instruments, namely, that their results have poor accuracy and are racially biased and that their use increases pretrial detention rates. We also provide recommendations for addressing these critiques to ensure that their use supports, rather than detracts from, the goals of pretrial reform and articulates an agenda for future research.