PLEA FOR HELP: Risk assessments not getting to Pima County judges

13 News Investigates finds another flaw in pretrial system
Victims of domestic violence do not always benefit from an important step in Pima County’s pretrial system.
Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 10:00 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Victims of domestic violence do not always benefit from an important step in Pima County’s pretrial system.

The risk assessment form is an important document that Initial Appearance judges receive in domestic violence cases, but 13 News has discovered judges have not been getting all of them, which could leave the public’s safety at risk.

In one case, a strangulation victim had been denied her constitutional right to talk to a judge during the suspect’s initial court appearance. It turned out to be a system-wide problem that has now been fixed.

But there’s another way for victims to be heard when they fear for their safety and 13 Investigates discovered a breakdown in the process.

“It’s been so hard and complicated and unfair,” Gracie McDonough said.

Her ex-boyfriend and the father of her child, Angel Carmona Rodriguez. pleaded guilty to strangling her last year, but he never spent a full day in jail.

During his initial court appearance, a judge released him under the supervision of Pretrial Services - no bond.

Nearly a year later, McDonough still fears for her safety.

“I was shocked because I’m like, ‘I just told you guys how violent and how scary and how bad this person is,’” McDonough said.

Her fear is conveyed through a document known as Form 4C or the APRAIS form.

It’s a lethality assessment that indicates the risk to reoffending.

Law enforcement is mandated to perform this assessment in domestic violence cases.

It’s a critical tool in understanding the victim’s viewpoint right after an attack and is used to help initial appearance judges determine bond or conditions of release.

Body cam video 13 News Investigates obtained shows a Pima County Sheriff’s Department deputy asking McDonough a series of questions.

Victims are not required to answer the questions, but McDonough did.

The questions include:

Do you believe he’s capable of killing you? McDonough answered “Yes.”

Is he known to carry or possess a gun? “Yes.”

Has he threatened to kill you? “Yes.”

Has he ever strangled you? She answered “Yes.”

McDonough said the questions helped her tell her story.

“So it’s like that paper that I filled out felt like I was actually being heard about all the other times instead of that one incident,” she said.

But McDonough is not sure the magistrate judge ever saw the form.

Presiding judge Tony Riojas told 13 News Investigates that’s likely the case.

He’s been constantly questioning whether I-A judges are getting all of the forms.

The judge had a strangulation case in December that included the Pima County Attorney’s Office I-A sheet, indicating, “Form 4c indicates High Risk.” But Riojas didn’t get the actual Form 4C.

When asked whether there was one available and would he have seen it that morning, Riojas said, “I should have ... supposed to.”

It’s not the first time the judge didn’t get the form. He said it happens a lot.

“I know for a long time there was a real strong emphasis on them -- doing it,” Riojas said, “And they were doing it all the time, even in misdemeanors. And all of a sudden it sort of dropped off.”

The judge said he sometimes gets them from the Pima County Attorney’s Office or law enforcement agencies, but he believes the rest are just floating out there in the cloud.

“It’s like socks in the dryer,” he said. “I don’t know. I’ve asked for this. Where do they go? No one is telling me. Maybe they don’t think I need to know, or they themselves don’t know. I don’t know.”

13 News Investigates has discovered judges were not getting all the risk assessments because of a flaw in the flow of the paperwork.

First, the Justice Court told the Pima County Sheriff’s Department that it was not receiving its forms because the email address had changed.

An email 13 News Investigates obtained shows the email change dated back to October 2019.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said the breakdown would be addressed.

“We’re not getting it to where it needs to be, so we’ll fix it,” Nanos said.

That seemed to be the solution to the problem.

But then a correction came from Justice Court.

In an email, a supervisor said the court has been “receiving the APRAIS forms” and then placed the blame on the I-A clerks for the drop-off.

She wrote, “I will remind the I-A clerks that they need to print forms and place them in the judge’s file.”

The court told 13 News Investigates that there isn’t an email issue because emails to the original email address were being forwarded to the new account.

But Riojas isn’t buying the court’s explanation -- pointing to the need for more clarity and oversight.

He said, “The simple answer is let everyone know where they go. And then we’ll figure out ... how to access them. Because I’ve asked where do they go?”

The judge said he has asked an I-A clerk where the forms can be found.

“She has no idea,” Riojas said.

In response to this latest development, Riojas sent 13 News Investigates an email stating, “She has told me that if they get a Form 4C, it is given to the judge. I am firmly convinced that this is an accurate statement. I have no reason to believe otherwise.”

Riojas told 13 News Investigates after shining a spotlight on the flaw, I-A judges are reporting they’re now seeing more of the APRAIS forms.

But that’s not the only reason for the drop-off in the forms.

Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar said officers are filling out the forms only 50 percent of the time.

He said it’s “obviously unacceptable that we’re doing it half the time.”

The department is now working on short- and long-term solutions to make sure this critical tool to give victims a voice gets in hands of the I-A judges.

“No excuses,” Kasmar said, “It’s something that we need to work on to do better.”

13 News Investigates will continue to keep track of the developments.