CA Murder Raises Pretrial Risk Assessment Issues

Photographer Edward French was murdered in San Francisco, allegedly by a teen who had served a jail term and had recently been arrested again. The victim’s partner charges that a judge made an “insane’ decision based on a risk-assessment algorithm.

In the dawn hours of July 16, Edward French, a professional film and TV scout, stood atop San Francisco’s Twin Peaks to photograph the sunrise. Lamonte Mims, 19, and Fantasy Decuir, 20, allegedly accosted French, 71, stole his camera, and shot him with a handgun, NPR reports.  French’s murder is raising concerns about a pretrial computer tool used to help determine if defendants should be held until trial. Supporters say the risk assessment algorithm is reducing jail crowding and increasing public safety by offering judges “validated, evidence-based data” on which defendants should be released. In this case, Mims was on probation after serving three months in jail for breaking into cars at Twin Peaks, a popular tourist spot.  On July 4, police arrested him for gun possession and parole violations. Judge Sharon Reardon released Mims with “assertive case management,” a program that requires check-ins. Reardon followed the advice of a “public-safety assessment” or PSA score. It’s a computer-generated score that’s used here to help calculate whether a suspect is a flight risk or likely to return to court.

French’s partner, Brian Higginbotham, calls Reardon’s decision “insane,” saying, “He’s violated two probations. He was a convicted felon. And he had a gun charge just five days before the murder of Ed French! It’s absolutely crazy. I think the judge has to be held accountable.” The score system was created by the Texas-based foundation of billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron energy trader who built and ran his own hugely successful hedge fund. The foundation, which advocates for criminal justice reform, gives the PSA tool free to any jurisdiction that wants it. Nine risk factors are plugged in, including criminal history, age, current charges, and past charges. The tool spits out a score for a judge to consider.