The Vera Institute of Justice has recently inserted itself into the movement for pretrial reform in Los Angeles, the county with the largest jail system in the US, if not the world. How Los Angeles County addresses pretrial reform and whether it makes changes that in fact lower pretrial incarceration rates, or just replaces a bad system with a worse, racially discriminatory system, will influence pretrial reform throughout the country. Currently, there is a strong contingent of community organizations working to change the system without turning to racially biased risk assessment tools. However, there is a danger that groups like Vera will pre-empt that movement. It is important to understand Vera as a national institution and how they interact with community resistance to the police state.
Vera and the police state
For over five decades, the Vera Institute for Justice has been a partner with law enforcement across the US and with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in particular. In 2014, Vera and the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance collaborated to produce a paper outlining their efforts to promote “data driven” policing, of which predictive policing programs like LAPD’s LASER are a form. In fact, Vera used LASER as a model example of the type of policing they are supporting. Far from supporting efforts to resist harmful programs like LASER, Vera has served as an architect of those programs.
LASER targeted individuals by giving them risk scores based on prior arrest history and other “contacts” with police. Those with high risk scores were subject to higher levels of police surveillance and police enforcement actions, including stops and searches — which, of course, would lead to further increase in their risk scores. Those labelled “high risk” could be subject to greater levels of violence by police — in fact, several young black men have been killed by LAPD in LASER zones throughout the city.
In April 2019, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that they would dismantle the LASER predictive policing program. The LAPD did not end the LASER program because they realized how predatory and discriminatory it was. They did not end the program because “reformist” consultant groups working to improve policing suggested that they should. LAPD had to end LASER because an adamant movement of grassroots groups, led by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, exposed the harms of the program and demanded not that they regulate it or make it more transparent or dress it up with a community advisory board, but that they dismantle it altogether. LAPD ended LASER because years of community organizing and advocacy against it forced them to.
Vera, pretrial reform and risk assessment
This Friday, December 6, 2019, Vera will be putting on a Symposium on pretrial reform in Los Angeles County. While respected community organizations will be participating and community members are invited, the target audiences of this Symposium are elected officials, policy makers and systems actors, including law enforcement. These are the categories of people that Vera primarily works with in promoting its vision of justice reform.
The debate around pretrial reform is marked by a critical controversy. Reformers generally would like to get rid of money bail. However, those who would change the system are divided on whether to replace money bail with the use of risk assessment tools or whether to simply remove both and reduce pretrial incarceration significantly.
Risk assessment tools operate similarly to the LASER program of person-based predictive policing. Using an algorithm, they assign a risk score, like a credit score, to an individual. The algorithm uses data, without context, about prior arrests, prior missed court dates, education levels, housing stability or other facts, to estimate a person’s likelihood of getting arrested again or missing a court date. The estimate is not based on that individual, but on what other people with similar profiles have done in the past. Because the factors used, including arrest history, are tied closely to underlying structural racism in policing and in the broader society, the tools create automated racial profiles. Anyone familiar with “redlining” will recognize how they discriminate. That they use mathematical formulas instead of judicial bigotry only serves to give the discrimination a veneer of objectivity, while entrenching the racist results. Further, the scoring systems really are not objective, and can be adjusted to lock up as few or as many people as the judges who control them would like. Since people in pretrial custody plead guilty quickly and judges want to move court calendars quickly, judges have incentive to set the scoring in a way that increases pretrial incarceration.
These risk assessment tools will be a major topic of Vera’s Symposium, as officials in Los Angeles just accepted $17.3 million from the state to start a program using a risk assessment tool designed by Arnold Ventures on every arrestee in the county. Community representatives will be speaking out against using the tools.
But Vera has a long history of supporting the use of pretrial risk assessment tools, just as they support LASER and predictive policing, including helping to design and implement them. Vera takes pride in having been an early developer of the tools. Where they have studied jail populations and made recommendations for reforms, Vera has consistently advocated for using risk assessment tools.
Their recent pronouncements on pretrial reform have acknowledged critiques of the tools, but ultimately minimized them. In response to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ (LCCHR) statement on pretrial risk assessment, which opposed use of the tools and “urge[d] jurisdictions to reconsider their use…”, Vera’s president, Nicholas Turner, said that there should be validation, transparency and community engagement, but did not alter Vera’s commitment to their implementation. Turner’s statement signals that Vera, as a national institution, remains a pro-risk assessment force, despite opposition to the tools from civil rights and community organizations across the country. But by no means are we giving LCCHR a free pass on this. LCCHR’s position opposing risk assessment tools itself only emerged because pressure from community organizations and representatives to publicly oppose risk assessment tools grew too large to ignore.
Arnold Ventures, a for-profit corporation led by former Enron executive turned hedge-fund investor John Arnold, is the leading proponent of risk assessment tools nationally, pushing to use the tool they designed, the Public Safety Assessment (“PSA”), in every US jurisdiction, including Los Angeles. Vera has a long history of working closely with and receiving millions of dollars from Arnold Ventures, including participating in Arnold’s National Partnership for Pretrial Justice Reform. Vera President Turner’s statement on LCCHR’s risk assessment position closely reflects Arnold Ventures’ “Statement of Principles on Pretrial Justice and Use of Pretrial Risk Assessment.” Given that Arnold is seeking to implement its tool in Los Angeles County and throughout California, it is unrealistic to believe that Vera will raise serious opposition.
A decision for our movement
As the battle over pretrial reform in Los Angeles and throughout the US reaches its critical moment, it is extremely important for advocates of real reform, decarceration, racial justice and resistance to the police state, to stand firmly by our principles. It is important that we understand the institutions that we are engaging, their histories and their entrenched interests. It is important that we remain united behind a clear vision of a people driven movement that does not cede power to harmful institutions even if they promise some short-term gain. Our movement for pretrial reform and for dismantling of the police state must reject allegiances with entities like Vera that use the rhetoric of liberation but have a long history of serving the carceral state.
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