A2J Lab “Behind the Experiment”: Dane County Part III

Today we present a final look at key field partners who have helped make the Dane County PSA RCT one of the A2J Lab’s signature series. Check out Part I and Part II as well!

In this installment, we are fortunate to share reflections from three officers of the court: Judge Juan Colás, Commissioner Jason Hanson, and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

Judge Colás sits on the circuit court bench and serves as its Presiding Judge. Among other roles related to the PSA’s rollout in Dane County, he has been involved in important conversations with the Lab about the wisdom of and need for an RCT evaluation. After our recent meeting in Madison, Judge Colás communicated the following:

I am pleased that Dane County will be adding an evidence-based tool, the PSA, to the information available to judicial officials making pretrial release decisions. It’s especially exciting that we are doing so as part of a randomized controlled study through Harvard Law School. I hope we’ll find that adding the PSA helps us make wiser use of pretrial incarceration and monitoring resources while lowering our failure to appear rate and protecting the public.

Dane County also has eleven Commissioners who possess many of the same powers and duties of circuit court judges. Most important for our work is their role in presiding over custodial initial appearances. Commissioner Hanson oversees the vast majority of these initial appearances and has graciously allowed several Lab researchers to “ride along” in court. With respect to the PSA, he finds it

so exciting to not only be able to use the tool, but also to be a part of the validation process.  We [judges] so often find ourselves making changes because a proposal “feels right” or someone has read the newest article about criminal justice “best practices” in the New Yorker and wants to move on it. Here, we have the chance to actually put the word “evidence” back into evidence-based decision-making.

FullSizeRender2We couldn’t be more pleased to have these two judicial officials, both of whom are committed to rigorously scientific reform efforts, as partners from the bench.

What of the lawyers who appear before Dane County Commissioners? It is of course the District Attorney’s office that files charges against the defendants whose initial appearances form the basis of our RCT. Mr. Ozanne is sanguine about the PSA’s potential effects on pre-disposition outcomes, noting first that “Dane County and Wisconsin have a history of working with evidence-based practices in criminal justice.” He nevertheless “hope[s] this move towards the PSA tool in the criminal justice system will afford us a clearer path towards equity and accountability not just for defendants but for the criminal justice system and our community partners.”

As I have noted elsewhere, the PSA’s potential impact is largely based on an informational hypothesis. With so much “noise” plaguing the Commissioner’s perception of a given defendant’s true risk of failure, the PSA might provide a more objective “signal” regarding that underlying risk. Mr. Ozanne and his staff will still be able to offer opinions in court and advocate for their own release condition preferences. He has pledged, alongside the objective of assessing defendant risk more precisely, to “never lose sight of the victims.” He believes their “voice and role in the criminal justice system is so important and cannot be undercut.” And so Mr. Ozanne is “committed to working with our community and systems partners to always strive to improve our current systems” in the hope that the A2J Lab’s RCT “will help inform our decisions and better protect our communities, our victims now and in the future.”

Stay tuned for another “Behind the RCT” series on our ongoing development efforts in the State of Iowa!

A stretch of open land between Polk and Linn Counties, Iowa, possible sites for future PSA RCTs.

A stretch of open land between Polk and Linn Counties, Iowa, possible sites for future PSA RCTs.

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A2J Lab “Behind the Experiment”: Dane County Part I

Last week, we marked the launch of our PSA RCT in Dane County, Wisconsin. Starting today, I will be pulling back the field experiment curtain, as it were, and introducing some of the A2J Lab’s field partners. These Dane County employees have worked tirelessly for almost two years to make the PSA’s implementation and our concurrent evaluation possible.

Ready, Set, Launch

Research Director Chris Griffin blogs from Wisconsin:

The day has finally arrived!

At this afternoon’s initial appearance court in Dane County, WI, the A2J Lab begins its evaluation of the Public Safety Assessment (“PSA”). Criminal process in this jurisdiction now includes additional, scientifically based information in a randomly selected subset of cases to inform pre-disposition release decisions. The judicial official–known here as a Commissioner–receives risk scores and a recommendation for release through the PSA and its static criminal history inputs to consider in reaching those decisions. Check out this video starring Lab affiliate Heidi Liu and yours truly to learn more about the science behind this RCT:

Fear and Loathing over Risk Assessments Part 2

How Should We Think about Racial Disparities?

In a previous post, I considered some of the less convincing critiques of pretrial and sentencing risk assessments that sound in the ecological fallacy. The fallacy argument mistakenly targets risk scores as applying only group inferences to individual case decision-making. The takeaway was straightforward. A comprehensive understanding of actuarial tools must include rigorous counterfactual thinking about a state of the world in which they aren’t available. In this follow-up, I discuss an even more serious claim: that actuarial tools might lead to unjustifiable racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes.