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House Bill Would End Pretrial Risk Assessments for Iowa Defendants

John Pemble
IPR file
Iowa Capitol

A new program that aims to reduce jail populations could be terminated under a bill that passed the Iowa House Monday evening.

A bill appropriating funds for the state’s justice system includes a provision that would outlaw the use of the Public Safety Assessment in pretrial hearings when determining whether to detain or release a defendant before trial.

The Public Safety Assessment uses a computer program to consider the risk of releasing a person waiting for trial. It’s an alternative to the typical bond system, in which defendants must pay to be released from jail.

Rep. Gary Worthan, a Republican from Storm Lake, said he’s worried about people who commit major crimes being released because of the Public Safety Assessment.

“The other piece that’s concerning is that we as legislators are not privy to the computer program that runs this particular process,” Worthan said.

Polk, Woodbury and Scott Counties started using the assessment earlier this year. Linn County also planned to participate, but that program is on hold pending the outcome of this legislation.

House Democrats proposed an amendment that would allow the pilot programs to continue, but it was defeated.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, said defendants released through the Public Safety Assessment often have more supervision than those released on bond.

“It provides a higher level of public safety to the community to have people charged with crimes released on pretrial release with supervision, [rather] than they just pay a bail bondsman some money and they are out,” Wolfe said.

Proponents of the program say this also prevents low-income defendants from being detained just because they can’t afford bail that a richer defendant can afford. They also say the program saves money for counties and the state.

Iowa’s use of the pretrial Public Safety Assessment came through a collaboration between the Iowa Judicial Branch, the Iowa Department of Corrections, the State Public Defender, and other organizations. A Harvard study of the assessment is including data from Iowa’s implementation of the program.

The bill passed the House 56-40. It now goes to the Senate.