Criminal justice reform comes home: New pretrial enforcement office opens in Kenai

A new system for assessing and monitoring criminal defendants before they go to trial is opening an office in Kenai.

The Pretrial Enforcement Division of the state Department of Corrections began setting up shop in May, five months after offices opened in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Palmer. Along with the Kenai office, new offices are also opening in Bethel and Ketchikan.

The Pretrial Enforcement Division is one part of a larger criminal justice reform package the legislature (Senate Bill 91) passed in 2016 that aimed to address the state’s rising — and increasingly costly — prison population. Instead of exclusively using a cash-bail system, pretrial risk assessments take into account factors that guide a judge’s decision on bail and conditions of release.

The risk assessments are intended to be objective, aiming to predict the likelihood that someone will fail to appear in court or have a new criminal arrest before their next trial date, as well as the overall likelihood of success or failure for defendants on pretrial release based on past data.

“We go to the court and say this person is likely to succeed or fail based on what we’ve seen,” said Pretrial Enforcement Division Director Geri Fox .

Fox emphasized that the new pretrial system is meant to be fairer for defendants who face different economic circumstances.

“These are people that are not convicted,” Fox said. “They’re considered innocent until proven guilty. And they have a right to get out, regardless of whether people like that.”

Economic inequities between defendants have meant those who have committed more serious crimes, but are more readily able to make bail, are let out, while those who have committed minor offenses but do not have the ability to make bail languish in jail. For those who can’t afford the upfront bail, waiting for that bond might mean losing a job or apartment and getting behind on bills, Fox said.

“If they are low risk, we’ve just increased their risk,” Fox said. “They’ve lost $3,000 worth of stabilizing factors in their life.”

Until now, pretrial supervision for Kenai defendants has been done from the Anchorage office, where staff would contact defendants by phone or make trips to the area to make sure defendants are following the conditions of their release, said Pretrial Supervisor Katie Morris, who works out of the Palmer office and helped get the Kenai office started.

“We are only seeing what the defendant wants us to see,” Morris said.

The Kenai office will have four officers responsible for monitoring and assessing defendants facing arraignment that day. The officers use a database to research the defendants’ past criminal history and then score them on a scale of low, medium or high risk in two categories — the likelihood that a defendant will fail to appear for a court date or will have a new arrest before the case is resolved.

The assessment looks at the age of first arrest, number of prior arrests, convictions or warrants, past criminal sentences and type of crime. The officers do not assess the potential danger a defendant may pose to the community — that is still up the judge. A low-risk defendant would be someone older, without an out-of-state criminal history with few or no offenses. A higher-risk defendant would have a substantial criminal history, Morris said.

Pretrial officers also function much as probation officers do — checking in on defendants, making sure they are making court dates and not violating conditions of release such as contacting victims or using alcohol or drugs. They also have the authority to arrest defendants who violate the conditions of their release.

Mike Tallent moved to the pretrial office after 10 years working as a probation officer in Kenai. Tallent said pretrial enforcement is similar to his previous job in probation, but provides an opportunity to work with defendants earlier in the judicial process and provide stability and support to those going through the system.

“We’re a small enough community that we still know our defendants we know our caseloads. We know their kids. We know their parents,” Tallent said. “You can’t generalize, and we’re lucky enough that we don’t have to, that we can tailor our supervision for each person.”

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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