White House Aims to Harness Data to Curb Prisoner Numbers

White House Aims to Harness Data to Curb Prisoner Numbers

In announcing a Data-Driven Justice (DDJ) initiative on June 30, the Obama White House said it will assemble a coalition of state and local governments, non-profit groups, corporations, universities, and foundations, to use sophisticated data analysis to help reshape criminal justice practices in ways to reduce the numbers of Americans behind bars.

Specifically, the DDJ program hopes to identify and publicize data-supported steps that can improve communities, support revised sentencing practices, and encourage the reintegration of former inmates back into mainstream society after they are released. (You can read more about the initial announcement on my Prison Education news blog last week.)

Senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett said the DDJ effort has already “engaged local leaders” who have already adopted “data-driven, evidence-based strategies” and will promote the sharing of their best practices with other states and localities trying to get up to speed on how to implement similar measures. The DDJ roll-out listed seven states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah) and 60 localities that are already participating in the project.

A news release from the project launch highlighted numerous failings of the current criminal justice system, as well as some programs which, it claims, can dig into data to find some solutions. The release noted the nation’s jails each year deal with over 11 million people, many of them charged with only low-level, non-violent offenses. While those inmates spend, on average, 23 days in custody, only about 5% of them are ultimately convicted and incarcerated. Even so, state and local governments annually spend about $22 billion on incarceration, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors. In addition, 64% of those who pass through local jails have some form of mental disability, 68% are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and 44% suffer from chronic health conditions, the White House release further noted.

Areas of major emphasis for the DDJ project include finding workable alternatives to putting non-violent offenders in jail while they are awaiting trial; it aims to develop and promote pre-trial assessment tools to help judge whether those arrested can safely be released until trial without having to post bond. It also wants to improve coordination between the criminal justice system and social service, healthcare, and mental health service providers, so that persons needing those services can obtain appropriate care rather than repeatedly passing through local jails and emergency rooms.

To illustrate the cost of current inefficiencies and fragmentation, criminal justice data network provider Appriss, one of several technology companies participating in the DDJ initiative, analyzed 8 million incarceration records from 47 states on persons whose persistent problems – addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or other conditions – result in their frequently being jailed or taken to emergency rooms. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, just 97 persons with mental problems wound up creating $13.7 million in costs over a four-year period.

The DDJ initiative plans to develop what it calls a “best-practices toolkit” that will provide concrete guidance to examples to jurisdictions seeking information and tools to support pre-arrest diversion programs (an area for which the Obama administration has pledged to help them find needed funds), and will work with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys to educate prosecutors on “alternatives to jail for low-level offenders.”

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com