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.

Each morning, the Assessors pour over criminal history data to complete PSA risk assessments.

Each morning, the Assessors pour over criminal history data to complete PSA risk assessments.

Let’s start where the risk assessment process begins each day, with the expert work of the two PSA Assessors. Rhonda Frank-Loron and Clark Rodgers, both former federal probation and pretrial services officers, receive a list of arrestees who have been scheduled for initial appearances. Using several databases, they determine the status of the PSA’s nine risk factors for each arrestee. Rhonda and Clark glean this criminal history information from statewide systems, local databases, and the FBI’s clearinghouse.

This process brings to life all of the science that went into developing the PSA. After they enter the risk factor values and apply the Decision Making Framework, the software produces two risk scores (one for failure to appear and one for committing a new criminal act) plus a flag for committing a new violent criminal act. At this point, the process reflects the collective decisions of Dane County’s criminal justice stakeholders that, in part, balance risk tolerance with resource constraints.

I asked Rhonda and Clark to reflect on their roles and offer their thoughts on evidence-based practices in Dane County. Rhonda admits that the “depth and breadth of [her] experience may be a bit unconventional in pretrial work.” In addition to her stint in the federal system, she worked at public defenders offices in Wisconsin and New York and also supervised incarcerated women at a halfway house in Madison. She goes on to observe:

I believe that pretrial is, and will continue to be, the cutting edge of criminal justice reform. We cannot afford to house people in jail merely because people are unable to post cash bond. The cost of unnecessary pretrial detention affects individuals, families, and governments in tangible and intangible ways. Harvard’s thorough analysis of this evidence-based practice tool will benefit not only Dane County, but all other jurisdictions tasked with deciding which tool to implement.

All told, she is “proud to tell people that we are using science to minimize defendants’ risk of failure to appear and minimizing the danger they pose to the community” and believes adoption of the PSA “is an encouraging step forward for Dane County to address the disproportionately large population of minorities detained in our jail on pretrial detention.”

Clark is equally optimistic about the prospect for pre-disposition reform in Dane County. He opines that “the PSA tool will help the courts reduce unnecessary detention, reduce the negative outcomes on defendants from job and housing losses, reduce instability to families and employers, and can reduce the economic impact of crime in the community.” Building on his prior experience at the federal level with evidence-based practices, he is confident “that this project will make our community safer through data driven pretrial decision-making that is efficient, cost effective, and fair.” Clark ultimately is very excited to be a part of this project, working with the Arnold Foundation, Luminosity, and us at the A2J Lab to undertake this major reform project and our ambitious study.

Next up, our partners at the Dane County Criminal Justice Council!

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

  • Hi, Annita,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I’m the Research Director of the organization at Harvard Law School that is working with Rhonda on this initiative. We are studying over the next few years whether the risk assessment tool has the effect that its developers envisioned. It is indeed based on objective, static criminal history information (plus the defendant’s age) and does not include any subjective data (or even objective data that must be gathered through an interview).

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