The district courts in the state’s most heavily populated county are the first to start using a new assessment that helps determine who should be kept locked up and who can be let go after they commit a crime.

Teri Sommerlot is the division manager of the Fifth Judicial District in Polk County and says the Public Safety Assessment (PSA) they are now using was created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

“They talked to people in the criminal justice area and said ‘where do we need help?’ And they said at the pre-trial stage. There’s little research, there’s little going on at the beginning of the process, so look at the pre-trial stage,” Sommerlot explains. “And when they started looking at that, they said we need a risk assessment, a good validated risk assessments for our pre-trial release units across the country to use.” She says researchers analyzed more than 1.5 million cases from more than 300 U.S. jurisdictions and came up with an assessment that did not have to be validated again for each court system across the country.

“All the risk assessments in the past — you had to gather data and you had to validate them before you really could even use them much. And so, it just took more resources than most jurisdictions had,” Sommerlot says. She says the new assessment found some of the things previously used to make decisions weren’t standing up.

Sommerlot says the new PSA is based on up-to-date research that indicates some of the factors previously thought to predict behavior are not as predictive they thought they were. Sommerlot says the assessment helps a judge make an important decision when someone is charged with a crime.

“Should I require this person to post a bond. How much should I require them to post if they are going to be released from custody,” Sommerlot says. “So, it’s happening very, very early in the process. What we do is score the assessment before the person sees the judge, and then give that assessment to the judge, and he or she can use that assessment then in making that bond determination. It’s just a tool.” She says the judges are not bound by the PSA findings, and can still make independent decisions on release issues. Sommerlot says the state has reached an agreement that gives it access to the assessment.

“The plan is for it to be used in the whole state of Iowa. There were just four counties that were selected to start the process — to be the first launchers so to speak,” Sommerlot says, “Polk County was one, Scott County, Linn County and Woodbury County.” Sommerlot says integrating the assessment into the system takes a little time.

“There’s really a lot that has to be done with your process — because this involves everybody from the county attorney to the defense attorneys, the judge, court administration, the clerk’s office. It involves so many people that there has to be some changes made to the process,” Sommerlot says.

Sommerlot says the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has said he would like to see the assessment used throughout the state within the next year or two.