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Using Big Data to predict criminal risk

Ann Thompson

Kentucky is leading the nation in its use of big data to help determine bail and criminal sentences.

The data-driven programs Kentucky and at least 20 other states use, like PSA-Court, look at a variety of factors including charges and criminal history. That information is given to a judge to help determine whether the defendant gets out on bail and how long their sentence will be.

Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder says if states are also factoring in things like socioeconomic status, neighborhood and education that can hurt the poor and minority groups. He spoke to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in August, and also to Gwen Ifell of PBS Newshour on this topic.


(pretrial assessments) reduced crime, reduced jail populations, and led to a smarter, more effective use of criminal justice resources.

What information is being used is also of concern to  Dr. Chris Sullivan, Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. He says people have spent years trying to get things like race out of the judicial system.

“So the question is, is this sort of another way that this might seep into the process under sort of the notion that this being an evidence based approach to sentencing. But essentially, a lot of the factors that are going to come into play are going to be criminal history factors, but there are other factors and their utility is going to depend on-are you using this to drive sentencing decisions or is it about maybe where to place an offender for treatment needs.”

Kentucky began using PSA-Court last July, and Chief Justice John Minton, Jr. said in an email to justices and judges, in the first six months of use it reduced crime by nearly 15% among defendants on pretrial release.

Minton said,"...judges in all 120 counties used the Public Safety Assessment-Court to predict more accurately when defendants can safely be released pending trial....(it) reduced crime, reduced jail populations, and led to a smarter, more effective use of criminal justice resources."

General Manager of Kentucky Pretrial Services Tara Klute says the state does not give education, socioeconomic and neighborhood information to the judge for  bail and sentencing determinations. Within 24 hours of arrest the defendant is interviewed, but she says that information, including education, address, email address, phone number, and employment, is not given to the judge. It is strictly contact information if the defendant doesn't show up for a court appearance. She says the judge only receives the criminal history, so he or she "can be objective."

According to Klute the PSA-Court data program is free. In exchange, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation which developed it, gets monthly data and analyzes it.

Kentucky House Bill 463 mandated evidence based risk assessment for all those arrested. It was passed in 2011.

Right now the federal government doesn't require big data assessments, but bipartisan legislation proposing it is moving through Congress.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.