Reynolds veto spares Polk County justice reform program

Governor Kim Reynolds used her item veto power today to preserve a pilot program designed to facilitate fair, cost-effective decisions on pretrial release for criminal defendants.

Polk County District Courts began using the Public Safety Assessment in January. The tool is supposed to help judges gauge a defendant’s risk of committing further crimes or not appearing in court if released before trial. It can reduce disparities in the justice system, since race, gender, national origin, religion, education, or income level are not among the nine factors that determine a PSA score.

Republican State Representative Gary Worthan, who chairs the Justice Systems Appropriations subcommittee, added language to a fiscal year 2019 budget bill terminating the program immediately. He asserted that GOP lawmakers had questions about the risk assessment tool and admitted he had “talked to people in the bail bonds business” who oppose it.

Iowa’s governor must either sign or veto most bills in their entirety, but our state constitution gives the governor power to item veto sections of appropriations bills. On June 1 Reynolds took final action on bills approved during the 2018 legislative session. Her office’s news release included the following veto message on two sections of House File 2492.

“The State of Iowa is currently taking part in a Public Safety Assessment (PSA) pilot program that provides judges with an objective, data-driven approach that they can use in pretrial proceedings when exercising their discretion. Sections 5 and 17 end that pilot program immediately.

“I disapprove of these sections because I believe that we should consider and study ways to create a fairer pretrial system that protects the public. But I also understand that the legislature and other stakeholders have questions about the PSA and whether it considers all of the appropriate factors. For that reason, I am instructing the agencies of the executive branch to continue their participation in this pilot program until December 31, 2018. At that time, the pilot will be concluded and further use of this assessment suspended until the data from the pilot can be analyzed. If, after studying the data and research conclusions, it is found that this program will be in the best interests of the public, then new legislation should be considered that authorizes the PSA or similar risk-assessment tools. I want to also emphasize that, even during the short pendency of the pilot project, the PSA does not and should not replace the judge’s discretion. The PSA is but one piece of information and the ultimate decision rests with each person sitting on the bench.”

No worries: the safety assessment does not replace a judge’s discretion. The chief judge of the Fifth Judicial District and director of the district’s Department of Correctional Services emphasized that fact when lawmakers were considering Worthan’s addition to the justice budget.

I had some hope Reynolds might block this language. Acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg previously led the State Public Defender’s office. Presumably that experience raised his awareness of racially and economically disparate outcomes of bail decisions. In recent weeks I communicated with several readers who were writing to the governor asking for an item veto. After some thought, I decided to submit a public comment myself. Excerpt from my message:

The pilot program came about thanks to a collaboration among stakeholders: the Iowa Judicial Branch, the Iowa Department of Corrections, the local Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, the State Public Defender, and the County Attorney’s Association. The opposition comes from one bail bonding company that stands to lose money if the pretrial assessment proves its value.

In the interest of justice and fairness, I ask you to veto Section 31.6 of House File 2492 and allow the pilot program to continue, rather than reward a self-interested lobbying campaign by one business entity.

A full year of data will be much more valuable than four and a half months of information on the Public Safety Assessment in Polk County courts. Reynolds has signed some awful bills this year, but credit to her for using her veto power wisely today.

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