Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, took aim at the Arnold Foundation’s “public safety assessment” (PSA) in a letter addressed to Matt Alsdorf, Vice President of Criminal Justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, criticizing the tool and its “ability to accurately predict who is going to commit new crimes or fail to appear while on pretrial release.”
I believe the Foundation is attempting to avoid answering serious questions that have
arisen about the stated intent of the Foundation to “money-ball’ the criminal justice system. In particular, I’m concerned that the tool is being criticized as not accurately predicting risk, leading judges and public officials to wrongly believe people are safe when, in fact, they are dangerous, reckless, and creating more persons who face the impact of this crime in our communities.
Transcript of the letter (full attachment below)
Vice President of Criminal Justice
Laura and John Arnold Foundation
2800 Post Oak Blvd., Ste. 225.
Houston, TX United States 77056-8809
Dear Mr. Alsdorf:
I am writing to express concerns and serious questions regarding the Public Safety
Assessment (PSA) tool, which is a risk assessment tool being used in numerous jurisdictions to
determine the pretrial release of criminal defendants, in terms of its ability to accurately predict
who is going to commit new crimes or fail to appear while on pretrial release.
I believe the Foundation is attempting to avoid answering serious questions that have
arisen about the stated intent of the Foundation to “money-ball’ the criminal justice system.
In particular, I’m concerned that the tool is being criticized as not accurately predicting risk, leading
judges and public officials to wrongly believe people are safe when, in fact, they are dangerous,
reckless, and creating more persons who face the impact of this crime in our communities. In
light of all of these concerns, the Foundation issued a curiously timed press release yesterday,
touting the success of the PSA while not mentioning the recent criticisms against the tool that
have been made public.
First, I noticed that the Arnold Foundation is currently being sued in federal court in New
Jersey for products liability and wrongful death in the State of New Jersey because the tool
allegedly informed a judge that a person who was a prior felon in possession of a firearm was
“low risk,” and thus should be released on a promise to appear. That defendant, a Mr. Jules
Black, was promptly released on a promise to appear, only to murder a 26 year old man in broad
daylight by firing 22 fatal shots some two days later. I have attached a copy of that complaint for
your review, and I would be curious to know the response of the Foundation as to how this can
happen, and then generally how the tool can ever classify a prior felon in possession of a firearm
as “low risk.”
Second, I noticed that almost the exact same thing happened in San Francisco last week. I have attached a news article that suggests that the tool recommended the release of another prior felon in possession of a firearm, who upon release, according to the article, then robbed two people at gunpoint and used a firearm to fatally wound a 71 year old man in a restaurant. Again, I think you owe people, in particular the persons who faced the consequences of these crimes and the jurisdictions using the PSA tool, an explanation as to how these deadly situations can happen with a tool that is supposed to be “validated” and “evidenced based.” I think you also owe judges, prosecutors, and the public some insight as to how many of these serious cases, which to the human eye are obviously dangerous, are instead classified by the tool as “low risk.” Your stated response that people like Jules Black would simply have bonded out under the old system and done the crime anyway gives people little comfort that the PSA actually works.
Third, serious criticisms have been made of the PSA tool, and it appears those concerns remain largely unaddressed. In fact, New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino recommended to New Jersey Acting Administrative Judge Glenn Grant on April 7, 2017 that the Arnold Foundation’s PSA tool must be “modified.” The Attorney General informed Judge Grant that absent modification of the PSA tool “our communities will face the dangers of those who choose, among other things, to terrorize others by pointing firearms at them, engage in illegal drug trade with firearms at their ready, and possess firearms when their prior illegal conduct has rendered them ineligible to possess them.” The letter from the Attorney General goes on to list other areas where there are concerns with how the Arnold Foundation’s PSA tool weighs various crimes. I have attached this letter in case you haven’t seen it. I’d be curious as to whether you still believe the tool was valid at the time and if it is valid now in light of these concerns, and I’d ask whether in fact you have modified the tool to address these concerns and what modifications may be made to suit political purposes while maintaining the integrity of the tool. Finally, I think it is important to look at other crimes, like sex offenses and others where the tool may be treating people as less risky than they really are and what the Foundation is doing about that. I have seen some news articles about sex offenders in New Jersey being classified as low risk on the tool, and I’d be curious as to what your response is in those cases.
Fourth, I received a copy of a contract that it is signed by the Arnold Foundation and the various entities around the country that are using this tool. I am sure you are familiar with it, but I am attaching a sample of one in case you don’t have it. While it appears the Foundation has released itself from all legal liability when something goes awry due to the tool getting it wrong, what really concerns me is that the Foundation is concealing everything that was used to build the tool. Again, the Foundation touts itself as being transparent because the factors and the weights are disclosed, however, when it comes to looking at the hundreds of thousands of cases that informed the building of the tool, the integrity of the information used to build the tool, and a simple check of the Foundation’s math, that information is all held behind a curtain and not available for inspection by a crime survivor, the public, the defendant, judges, prosecutors, or the police, all of whom will have their rights and futures decided by this computer program. In fact, in a news story, which I am attaching, it notes that the Arnold Foundation “won’t reveal exactly how they came up with the algorithm.” So I must ask, what does the Foundation have to hide? Since the Foundation is a non-profit, why don’t you open up all of the information and assumptions used to build the tool in the first place and let other experts not chosen by you take a look at it? I think you owe that to everyone who’s lives will be impacted by this tool, and I think each jurisdiction that is using this tool should immediately demand a local, third-party, independent audit of the tool. Due to the serious nature of what is at stake, I think that it is fair to assume that the people who use the tool should have confidence in it, since they are allowing you to walk away unscathed when the tool gets it wrong and someone is killed, raped, or seriously injured.
Finally, in your recent blog post, you suggest that judges consider the PSA report “when deciding whether a person should be released or detained.” I think that contradicts nearly every State Constitution in the land because people have a right to bail and judges are required to set bail that is not excessive. There is generally little preventative detention in this country making the decision purely about release or detention. I am quite concerned with this trend of trying to change the constitutions regarding bail because the overlay of the rights of crime survivors in bail pre-supposes the existing state constitutional provisions, and I think how crime survivors’ issues would be handled is not well thought out in that regard. Thus, I would ask you to clarify your position as to whether the Arnold Foundation is advocating the changing of State Constitutions when it comes to bail? It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways.
Candidly, I think you owe it the survivors of crime, defendants, taxpayers, and the public to answer these serious questions that have recently come out. I do not have confidence at this time that this tool adequately protects the public, the survivors of crime, or accurately predicts criminal behavior. Nonetheless, by writing, I am giving you the benefit of the doubt that you have answers to these serious questions, and that you are prepared to now answer these questions. I look forward to your response.
crime survivors letter to arnold (wattach) (1).pdf