Enhancing the Justice System Through the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool: A Case Study in Las Vegas Municipal Court

A pretrial assessment is designed to balance individuals’ rights for due process, ensure public safety, and maintain the integrity of the judicial system. So how do you ensure the pretrial assessment process is fair? That’s the question Las Vegas Municipal Court (LVMC) wanted to address when implementing the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment (NPRA) tool.

Determining Las Vegas Municipal Court’s Need for a Pretrial Assessment Tool

In 2015, Nevada convened the Committee to Study Evidence-based Pretrial Release (Committee) under Associate Chief Justice James W. Hardesty to review the current pretrial release system and examine ways to adapt and enhance it. As one of the first pilot sites that helped develop the evidence-based, validated NPRA tool, LVMC reviewed a variety of information—including from the Arnold Foundation and the Ohio Risk Assessment System—to tailor the NPRA tool to meet their needs. To justify using the NPRA tool, LVMC needed to evaluate the tool’s data to help them understand which defendants fare better with quick pretrial release. Prior to LVMC using the NPRA tool, very few people were qualifying for pretrial release, and those who did qualify were often waiting 24–48 hours to be released.

Research indicates potential undesirable outcomes for each additional 24 hours that defendants remain in custody, such as losing jobs, housing, and/or parental rights. Additionally, Nevada’s bond structure tacked on additional fees, negatively affecting some defendants more than others because they cannot afford the fees. Streamlining defendants’ release from police custody prior to trial can help defendants avoid unnecessary economic hardship, help them keep jobs, maintain family support, and mitigate psychological issues, which benefits both defendants and the community.

While LVMC was unable to produce reliable data on their pretrial release rates due to an antiquated case management system, LVMC suspected that the rates were quite low. Prior to using the NPRA tool, they relied on anecdotal standards that were neither evidence-based nor validated. With this background, LVMC made a conscious decision to participate as a pilot site.

Evaluating the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool

To create the tool, the Committee analyzed several studies and data related to pretrial release. Based on this research, they developed a list of evidence-based criteria used to determine if an individual qualifies for pretrial release. The tool also reviews criminal history in all 50 states and looks at the last 10 years of conviction information.

After a person is booked into jail, the booking goes into the LVMC Pretrial Services Unit queue. Pretrial Services staff will administer the tool by reviewing the criteria and running a series of criminal justice computer applications, including the National Crime Information Center and the Nevada Department of Corrections. Staff produce a final score that determines the individual’s risk level. If the individual is considered low-risk, he or she will be administratively released. It now takes an average of 15–20 minutes to determine a person’s risk level. Because the Pretrial Services Unit can determine release eligibility much more quickly, defendants are now released from the jail within 4 hours—down from an average of 24–48 hours. This is a perfect example of how improved efficiencies in one area of the criminal justice system affect the practices of another.

Defendants are also required to fill out an Own Recognizance Release Form at the booking process rather than the release process. This has improved accuracy in the forms since individuals are not rushing to fill them out in anticipation of a quicker release. LVMC has also partnered with the Stanford Legal Design Lab, who created a text messaging program where defendants can opt in or out of receiving text notifications from the court, which improves the likelihood of successful appearance rates.

The path set out by the improved pretrial release process pre-dated the 2019 legislative session in Nevada. However, the Nevada legislature further assisted LVMC’s efforts when it changed the laws regarding certain traffic violations. Originally, there was no presumption of release for any traffic violations. Now, for certain traffic violations, there is a presumption of release on own recognizance, which results in much fewer defendants requiring pretrial assessments. The widespread release of low-risk individuals also encourages law enforcement to consider offering citations rather than bringing people into custody because they are likely to be released quickly after.

Implementing the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool

After the Committee created the NPRA tool, the LVMC judges—who are supportive of critically reviewing proposals for improvements to court processes—agreed to a pilot program. Three judges used the NPRA tool, which is evidence-based (Group 1), and three judges used the prior standards, which were not evidence-based or validated (Group 2). The two groups were almost identical in terms of the defendants’ race and gender demographics.

Independent review is an important step in validating data for accuracy and objectivity, so LVMC reached out to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to help them validate their findings. As part of their training and technical assistance support offerings, BJA NTTAC paired LVMC with the Pretrial Justice Institute, who reviewed LVMC’s data and confirmed its analysis.

LVMC started collecting data on October 15, 2018, and the resulting analysis provided extremely useful information. Group 1 had significantly better appearance rates (94 percent versus 64 percent when release was based on the NPRA tool versus prior standards and 92 percent versus 84 percent for all release types). Additionally, only 11 percent of defendants in Group 1 were released using cash means, compared to 47 percent of defendants in Group 2.

During the pilot program—with only three judges using the NPRA tool—the own recognizance pretrial release rate was 38 percent, with only 24 percent release for low-risk defendants. After reviewing the positive impacts the data revealed, all six LVMC judges allowed full implementation of the NPRA tool. Now, the overall own recognizance pretrial release rate is 50 percent, with nearly 100 percent release for low-risk defendants.

By implementing the NPRA tool, LVMC is ahead of the curve. In 2019, the Nevada Supreme Court mandated that every jurisdiction develop and use an evidence-based tool by September 2020.

Developing A Tool for Your Jurisdiction

Some jurisdictions rely on subjective tools rather than evidence-based or data-driven tools to make decisions on pretrial release. A pretrial assessment tool will not be as effective if the data is not evidence-based or data-driven and validated. Validated data ensures the tool is working for your jurisdiction based on measured evidence rather than guesswork. Additionally, a pretrial assessment tool’s success heavily relies on consistent data-gathering and sound analysis, as well as efforts to eliminate bias both in the tool and in the system. A pretrial assessment tool’s biggest strength is its careful, precise, and measurable data that can more accurately predict which groups of similarly situated individuals can successfully be released pretrial, making it an important asset to a court system and its community. By implementing the evidence-based and validated NPRA tool, LVMC has moved closer toward the goal of balancing individuals’ rights for due process, keeping communities safe, and maintaining the integrity of the justice system.

If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to pretrial assessment tools, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov and we can connect you to the appropriate training, assistance, TTA partner, and/or resources.

If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.

Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.