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Decisions at the pretrial stage can range from very simple to highly complex. In some jurisdictions, the decision is either to release or detain, whereas in jurisdictions with substantial pretrial supervision capacity, the decision can involve multiple options for pretrial release conditions such as electronic monitoring or in-person reporting. Here are five questions you should ask yourself as you plan or seek to improve a structured decision-making tool or process based on risk assessment.


Does the decision aid integrate risk with other factors that should also be considered? 

Frameworks or decision aids to structure decisions at the pretrial stage are often matrices such as the anonymized sample pretrial decision-making matrix below. Such matrices generally bring together two elements:

  • The defendant’s likelihood (risk) of failure to appear in court or reoffend in the community (in general, and for violent offenses in some tools) if released pretrial. This is what the pretrial risk assessment measures.
  • The severity of the charge the defendant is facing.

As much as possible, it is helpful to use the matrix or other decision-making tool to incorporate the key factors that should inform decision-making. The simpler the tool, the more easily it can be applied. Bear in mind that a pretrial risk assessment tool itself incorporates a number of different risk factors, such as past criminal history and track record of appearing in court.

Figure 1. Sample Pretrial Decision-making Matrix
Figure 1. Sample Pretrial Decision-making Matrix
Source: Mesa County, Colorado (see reuse policy).

 Is it clear how the preferred approach varies by risk level?

An advantage of a tool such as the example matrix is that there is a clear preferred outcome for each cell. The upper left portion of the matrix, where the risk is low and the charge is not serious, suggests pretrial release with minimal conditions. To the lower right, where risk is higher and the severity of charge is greater, pretrial release with intensive supervision or detention are options.

See below for a specific example from Mesa County, Colorado of a matrix to assign people to the appropriate level of pretrial supervision.


A pretrial matrix such as this should be a stakeholder consensus product, one that is grounded in research and reflects a shared understanding of the appropriate pretrial release/detention outcome and in the case of release, conditions of that release.


Does the framework support identifying the least onerous conditions necessary to support pretrial success?

Research indicates that pretrial detention is detrimental to detainees and can make future offending more likely. Therefore, a structured decision-making framework supports evidence-based practice by encouraging a judicious use of detention. In the sample matrix, only violent felony charges result in a presumption of detention.


 Are there categories of people for whom the intended intervention is insufficiently available?

A decision-making guide like the sample pretrial matrix shown below indicates what a jurisdiction wants to have happen in the run-of-the-mill case. However, the ultimate decision depends on a few factors, one of which is whether the preferred option is actually available. How many defendants can receive intensive pretrial supervision depends on the capacity of the local pretrial supervision agency. In cases of insufficient resources, a matrix like this can be a valuable guide to producing pretrial decisions as aligned with an overall strategy as possible, and identifying priority areas for increasing capacity.


 Are there categories of people for whom the intended intervention is insufficiently available?

This type of structured decision-making can guide the monitoring of three important aspects of system context and performance:

  • How many defendants fall into each cell of the matrix? This determines the pretrial supervision capacity necessary to actually deliver the intended release types.
  • Are defendants being released/detained and supervised at the level suggested by the matrix? There will always be some use of overrides of the suggestions of a matrix such as this, reflecting specific circumstances or relevant information that is not sufficiently captured by the pretrial risk assessment or the charge. However, high override rates indicate that practitioner agreement with the structured decision-making framework is lacking, and either consensus needs to be re-established (or established), or the matrix itself should be adjusted.
  • What are the defendant success/failure rates for each cell of the matrix? Tracking pretrial outcomes by matrix category allows a jurisdiction to monitor whether the levels of supervision being employed are producing acceptable pretrial success rates.