The people and the algorithm behind Spokane County’s efforts to reform the pretrial criminal justice system

Spokane County is combating jail overcrowding with a statistical-risk assessment tool that factors in several variables about people accused of crimes, including age, criminal history, housing situation, and substance abuse issues.

Zachary Hamilton

The tool, known as SAFER, or “Spokane Assessment for Evaluation of Risk,” was developed by Washington State University criminal justice and criminology professor Zachary Hamilton specifically for Spokane’s population using data from about 14,000 criminal cases.

The SAFER tool has been “validated to predict equally for all races,” Hamilton says. It’ll take a year’s worth of data to determine whether he needs to make any tweaks in that regard.

“To a certain extent, risk assessment tools help diminish racial and ethnic bias by removing the human bias inherent in prosecution or judicial discretion,” he says. “There’s inherent racial bias within all measures of the criminal justice system, and risk assessment tools can only be as good as the data that’s provided.”

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The Inlander