Billionaire John Arnold, who calls himself a “special interest pot stirrer,” has decided to join New York City — which is suffering through a crime wave with its new arrest and release program — to meddle in the issue of bail reform.
As part of Arnold’s scheme to remake the criminal justice system by releasing criminals before they are tried, he created a “Public Safety Assessment” (PSA) tool, which is basically a formula that is supposed to assess whether suspects are safe to be released before their trials. According to Arnold’s website, it is “a risk assessment tool that helps judges make accurate, efficient, and evidence-based decisions about which defendants should be detained prior to trial and which can be safely released.”
New York City’s program differs insofar as the state has simply barred police from detaining criminals for most offenses. But the results are the same as criminals go free.
Unsurprisingly, Arnold’s efforts at releasing criminals have encountered a lot of resistance from law enforcement professionals from across the country who are alarmed at what they are seeing in municipalities that participate, and they just don’t want to take the risk.
One law enforcement professional who opposes the use of the hedge fund manager’s formula is Eric Siddall, the vice president of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys. “We’re trying to use a method that hedge funds use to make money to make a determination of whether someone should be in custody or not… The problem is if a hedge fund makes a mistake, they lose money. If we make a mistake, someone dies,” said Siddell.
For those unfamiliar with Arnold, he is the former trader who collected the largest bonus in Enron’s history and went on to found his own hedge fund before retiring at the age of 38. Maybe that’s why he thinks it’s safe to gamble with public safety.
Incredibly, the assessment tool assigned two armed robbery suspects the lowest risk score – a 1 out of 6. The two Indiana residents are alleged to have entered a New Orleans pharmacy early in the morning wearing gloves and hoodies, robbed the pharmacy at gunpoint, bound two employees with zip ties, and engaged in a shootout with police as they attempted to flee injuring an officer.
Fortunately, the PSA scores were completely disregarded and bail for each of the suspects was set at more than one million dollars. The assistant district attorney at the bail hearings asserted that the assessments were “unconscionable.” The district attorney followed up by calling the PSA’s score for one of the suspects “absurd” and stated that it “shows exactly why the skepticism” of the PSA “is both warranted and deserved.”
Two former sheriffs – David Clark, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and Bob White, the former sheriff of Pasco County, Florida – wrote an op-ed opposing the use of the PSA tool: “John Arnold claims to have cooked up a mathematical formula that can somehow predict whether a given criminal suspect will abscond or commit another crime — in other words, Mr. Arnold wants to play of game of Russian roulette but the gun is always pointed at your head, not his… Pre-trial release determinations are complicated and fraught with danger to the public. They are difficult decisions best made on a case-by-case evaluation of all the evidence and circumstances by an experienced judge who has heard arguments on all sides. You can’t leave those decisions to a mathematical formula.”
In addition, Gov. Susana Martinez (R-N.M.), a former prosecutor with more than twenty years of experience, issued the following warning about the PSA tool: “Here in New Mexico, we’ve been working hard to crack down on a catch and release revolving door criminal justice system – a problem that irresponsible interpretations and rules implemented by courts and the Arnold pretrial risk assessment tool have only aggravated. New Mexico implemented this pretrial risk assessment tool to devastating results.
Even a supporter of the PSA tool admits there are significant problems. Alex Bastian, a San Francisco assistant district attorney who is also a spokesman for the district attorney’s office stated, “We feel as though the calculations have not been done accurately on many occasions.”
Throughout Arnold’s career of gambling on natural gas prices, formulas may have been helpful to him in amassing his fortune, but neither human nature, nor justice, nor public safety can be reduced down to a simple formula utilizing only basic information about a suspect. That is why the decision of whether or not to release a suspect from custody should be made by an experienced professional – one who is not relying on a magic formula.
Richard McCarty is the Director of Research at Americans for Limited Government Foundation.
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