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Delaware’s Justice of the Peace Court has completed its first quarter of using pretrial risk assessment tools to determine appropriate sentencing for defendants charged with a crime. Although the court completed 4,804 risk assessments since December, Chief Magistrate Alan G. Davis said his court’s judges still need guidance to validate the data and ensure defendants receive appropriate sentences for their offensives.

“We are not data analysts,” Davis said at last week’s Justice Reinvestment Oversight Group meeting. “I think the court itself may need some assistance with translating what the data is actually doing on the ground.”

In the first quarter, the court completed 4,804 risk assessments on 3,097 individual defendants, Davis told the JRO’s members. Some individuals received more than one sentencing evaluation because they faced multiple charges or had additional cases. In some instances, an individual received four or five separate risk assessments, Davis said. The judge added that one defendant received seven pretrial risk assessments.

“The first assessment may recommend a lower level than the last one because the data from the first one is informing the last one,” Davis said.

The court did not perform risk assessments for individuals with violations of parole or capias charges because such individuals have a higher risk of being detained after sentencing and skew the results.

Judges ordered a different sentence than recommended by the pretrial assessment in 3.7 percent of the cases, far below the national average of a 10 percent deviation from the recommended sentence, Davis said. In some cases, the judges were required under Delaware law to issue a different punishment, while in other cases the judges opted to order a harsher sentence.

“The number of overrides are lower than expected,” Davis said. “However, there is some concern because the number of overrides moving from a lower level to a higher level is pretty high in comparison to the number of overall high-risk assessments themselves.”

Among the 309 individuals who were defined as “high risks,” judges deviated from the recommended sentencing in 24 percent of those cases.

Evaluating the effectiveness of risk assessment tools is one of the JRO’s key goals. The task force is quantifying the effectiveness of SB 226, a legislative package singed into law last summer to implement the Justice Reinvestment Task Force’s recommendations. A key component of that legislation was the implementation of pretrial risk assessments to better gauge an offender’s chances of recidivism by analyzing a series of behavioral factors.

The Justice of the Peace Court’s adoption of the evaluation tools was among the topics the group discussed April 23 at its meeting at the New Castle County Courthouse. Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. led the meeting, which was also attended by Court of Common Pleas Chief Judge Alex J. Smalls; Drewry Fennell, policy adviser to Gov. Jack Markell; Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe and state Rep. James Johnson, D-Wilmington.

Davis said the risk assessment tool implementation “was going fairly well,” but the court will need some assistance to interpret the data. The tools rank defendants on a scale corresponding to their potential recidivism risk. A defendant who is ranked between one and five is a low-level risk, a defendant who receives a score between six and 10 is a medium-level risk, and any individual who receives a risk of 11 or above is considered a high-level threat.

Davis said the Justice of the Peace Court’s judges need assistance to ensure they are not overvaluing or undervaluing a single risk factor.

“It’s beyond our level of experience to translate the data and what it’s doing on the ground,” he said. “We sort of need someone else to drive the link. I don’t think the Sentencing Accountability Commission has the manpower or the directive to do that as well. We are interpreting the data as best we can, but we think we need someone to help us with that.”

Davis said the goal of the data analysis would be to validate the risk assessment tool itself and he expects to start the project after the Justice of the Peace Court has compiled roughly a full year of data.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization that helped implement the JRI’s recommendations, also assisted the Justice of the Peace Court with adopting the risk assessment tools. However, Davis said a third party will help the court evaluate the data.

JRO members also discussed the possibility of applying for Phase III funding. Nancy Fisher, a Vera member who attended the meeting, said Phase III was still in the preliminary stages, but if a state is selected it could receive as much as $2 million in federal aid to implement justice reinvestment programs.

Fisher added that not much was known about the Phase III program. The government will select three or four states for the program out of the 17 states that have implemented a justice reinvestment initiative.

“It is important that a state shows some commitment to the reinvestment component of this,” she said.

The JRO did not immediately decide at the meeting if it would pursue the Phase III financing. 

Jeff Mordock can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or jmordock@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffMordockTLI.