If you’re reading this, it likely means that people in your jurisdiction are taking important steps toward examining your pretrial system with the hope of making it more effective, fair, and lawful. Using a pretrial risk assessment such as the PSA is one component of an effective pretrial system. The PSA is designed to assist judicial officers in making pretrial decisions. Using criminal history, and court and administrative records, the PSA predicts risk of failing to appear in court (FTA), engaging in new criminal activity (NCA), and engaging in new violent criminal activity (NVCA) pending case disposition. Dozens of jurisdictions have adopted the PSA, including the states of Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey—and some of the largest cities in the United States, such as Phoenix, Chicago, and Houston.
This guide focuses on the technical and operational aspects of using a pretrial risk assessment. It specifies the minimum requirements that a jurisdiction should have before embarking on PSA implementation. Once a jurisdiction’s leaders decide that they are ready to implement, other resources, including the Overview of Change Management and Critical Implementation Issues highlight several topics they should consider at the start of the process. Other materials on this website provide overviews of the PSA and the implementation process.
How the PSA Works
In 2013, LJAF created the PSA using the largest, most diverse set of pretrial records assembled to date—1.5 million cases from nearly 300 jurisdictions across the United States. Out of those cases, about half (750,000) could be used for analysis; in the other cases, the defendant had been detained. After thorough testing, researchers identified nine factors that best predict pretrial risk of failure to appear in court, new criminal activity, and new violent criminal activity.
PSA Risk Factors:
- Age at current arrest
- Current violent offense
- Current violent offense and 20 years old or younger
- Pending charge at the time of the offense
- Prior misdemeanor conviction
- Prior felony conviction
- Prior conviction
- Prior violent conviction
- Prior failure to appear pretrial in the past two years
- Prior failure to appear pretrial older than two years
- Prior sentence to incarceration
The PSA scores are calculated based on points assigned to each risk factor response and weighted according to the strength of the relationship between the factor and each pretrial outcome (FTA, NCA, and NVCA). Scores for FTA and NCA are generated by converting the points to two separate scales of 1 to 6, with higher scores indicating a greater level of risk. A defendant’s risk of NVCA is indicated by the presence of a “flag,” which is also generated based on the points.
In most jurisdictions, staff review local databases to determine the presence of the nine risk factors in each case. For example, staff indicate the age of the defendant, whether the current offense is considered violent, whether there is a pending charge at the time of the current offense, and so on. But staff do not manually calculate the points and scales. Instead, the PSA scores are computed automatically based on business requirements. The PSA is either programmed into an existing IT system or functions as a stand-alone application. Some jurisdictions have developed fully or partially auto-populating PSA applications that analyze data sources and pull responses to some or all of the nine risk factors. This eliminates the need for a staff member to analyze and input some or all of the responses.
Once the PSA is completed, the PSA application generates a report that includes the scores and the risk factor responses and usually suggests pretrial release conditions. The conditions are based on local policy that matches the PSA scores to pretrial release decisions. The PSA report is provided to the judicial officer and, in most jurisdictions, is made available to the prosecutor and defense attorney. These reports give judicial officers additional information to help guide their decisions.
Is Your Jurisdiction Ready for the PSA?
Even if your jurisdiction already uses a pretrial risk assessment, you must evaluate whether your jurisdiction meets the minimum requirements to use the PSA. Based on the experiences of other jurisdictions, readiness depends on the following, at a minimum:
- a commitment to use the PSA to inform decisions;
- the availability of data to score the nine risk factors;
- the capacity to integrate the PSA application; and
- the availability of staff to complete the PSA.
The PSA Readiness Checklist can help assess whether your jurisdiction is ready to use the PSA. The remainder of this guide provides information about each of the main factors that will help you and your colleagues determine that.
Adopting a pretrial risk assessment is a process that cannot be easily driven from the top down. Whether your jurisdiction is shifting from using another assessment or has never used one, implementation will require a team of influential, experienced stakeholders to provide credibility to others in the system and reinforce that the change is needed. Although it is likely that some of your jurisdiction’s stakeholders support the use of a pretrial risk assessment, it is also possible that some have either not fully committed to the project or are simply less informed about the need to do business differently.
In most jurisdictions, the key stakeholders involved in the pretrial process include judicial officers, court administrators, pretrial services staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the Sheriff and other law enforcement officers, and jail administrators. Their support for both the implementation process and the use of the PSA is essential.
It is also important for a jurisdiction to identify a project champion: a leader who actively and visibly participates in the process—someone who can help build a coalition of support among other leaders, and a person who can inspire others by communicating a persuasive vision and path. A project champion plays a crucial role in implementing the PSA and sustaining this work.
Complete the PSA Readiness Checklist to determine whether you have the necessary support for this initiative in your jurisdiction
For many jurisdictions, the availability of data determines whether a site is ready to adopt the PSA. The Readiness Checklist specifies the data elements a jurisdiction must have access to in order to score each risk factor, track outcome measures, and assess staff and PSA performance.
Complete the PSA Readiness Checklist to determine whether the necessary data are available in your jurisdiction’s databases.
In most jurisdictions, staff review local databases to respond to the nine PSA risk factors. As mentioned earlier, staff do not manually calculate the points and scores, and the PSA must be automated and programmed to calculate results and run reports. In most jurisdictions, the PSA application is integrated by updating an existing data system, such as the one used by the courts, jail(s), or a pretrial services entity. Some jurisdictions conclude that such updating is not possible and they must install a new, separate software application. You will need to decide how to integrate the PSA and whether your jurisdiction has sufficient in-house resources to accomplish the necessary programming. Some jurisdictions find that they are unable to modify certain systems with in-house resources because the systems are owned by private vendors, were built by private vendors and are too costly to revise, or are decades old and no one has the expertise to modify them. Several jurisdictions have contracted with private software vendors to program the PSA into the modules those businesses offer to agencies. The Guide to PSA Technology Options can help your site assess its information technology resources and needs.
Complete the PSA Readiness Checklist to assess whether your jurisdiction has the ability and/or resources to integrate the PSA.
Unless your jurisdiction plans to develop a fully auto-populating PSA system, staff must be available to review the relevant data sources and enter the risk factor responses into the PSA application in a timely manner. Staff also might have to generate PSA reports and disseminate them to the identified stakeholders. If your jurisdiction already has a pretrial services agency that uses a risk assessment, the answer to this question may be simple. If your jurisdiction does not have a pretrial agency, you will need to choose the entity that will be responsible for completing the PSA. Some jurisdictions have created new pretrial agencies within county departments such as probation departments, County Manager’s offices, and Sheriff’s offices, and/or contracted with nonprofit agencies to provide the relevant services. Some states have incorporated pretrial services into state agencies such as the courts or departments of corrections.
One issue to consider is whether staff of the agency responsible for completing the PSA can readily access the relevant records and data systems. If they cannot, can new data exchanges or connections be easily created or obtained? Consider also that criminal history information can typically be accessed only by a law enforcement agency, though possibly by other agencies, depending on state laws and policies. Out-of-state criminal history is also required to complete the PSA. It is important to consider which agencies in your jurisdiction have access to out-of-state criminal history databases (mostly through the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC). If your jurisdiction proposes having an agency complete the PSA that does not currently have access to all relevant criminal history databases, you will need to discuss how to arrange proper access.
Complete the PSA Readiness Checklist to determine whether your jurisdiction has adequate staff resources to adopt the PSA.