Partnering for data-driven prosecution in San Francisco

California Policy Lab
6 min readDec 3, 2019


By Evan White and Alissa Skog

Photo by Cortney Shegerian on Unsplash

Jurisdictions across the country are electing district attorneys who champion strategic, data-driven policies to improve equity, address racial bias in the justice system, and maintain public safety.

By working with researchers, these DAs are equipping themselves with an evidence base to understand the impacts of their policies, guide their decision making, and tackle the challenges facing the justice system today.

This refreshing approach to prosecution was one of George Gascón’s legacies in San Francisco. During his tenure as San Francisco District Attorney, Gascón made it a priority to partner with researchers to investigate key challenges, such as racial and ethnic disparities in case processing, and to evaluate local and statewide policies. His successor, Chesa Boudin, a public defender who successfully ran on a platform of criminal justice reform, will take office in January 2020.

Given Boudin’s focus on reform, it’s timely to review some of the ways the DA’s office has previously worked with internal and external partners to dig into the data, test alternatives to incarceration, and implement policy changes.

Piloting Alternatives

Over the past eight and a half years, the San Francisco DA’s office used existing evidence to spearhead policies intended to reduce both crime and over-incarceration.

In 2012, the SFDA launched the Sentencing Planning program, which utilizes an evidence-based risk, needs, and protective factor tool SPInTM to develop an alternative sentencing plan to address a defendant’s criminogenic factors through vocational training, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and housing. The SFDA, along with the Police Department and Department of Public Health, co-chaired the implementation of the national Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) model locally in 2017. LEAD SF is a pre-booking diversion program that refers low-level, repeat drug offenders to community-based health and social services — in lieu of jail and prosecution — at the point of contact with law enforcement.

In collaboration with other justice partners, the DA’s office launched the Young Adult Court in 2015, which applies lessons from neuroscience and cognitive development to provide young adult offenders charged with serious offenses an opportunity to transform their lives through an in-depth program that is an alternative to traditional prosecution.

Generating new evidence

In recent years the DA’s office has also partnered extensively with independent researchers to help build the evidence base for specific reforms. This research helps prosecutors understand what’s working and what to improve, and aims to inform policies in other jurisdictions. Los Angeles and Yolo counties have replicated San Francisco’s Neighborhood Courts model and efforts to replicate Young Adult Court are underway in Orange County, California, in Texas, and in Massachusetts. Among the DA’s partners are the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, think tanks like the RAND Corporation, and our organization, the California Policy Lab, based at the University of California.

Examples of this data-driven approach include:

· Reducing Ethnic and Racial Disparities: The DA’s office sought to understand the prosecutor’s role in generating and perpetuating racial and ethnic disparities present throughout the criminal justice system, in order to better mitigate them. As a first step, a report by Professors Steven Raphael of UC Berkeley and John MacDonald of the University of Pennsylvania was commissioned to quantify racial disparities at key decision-points and explore the causes of the disparities in outcomes for criminal cases (a summary brief is also available).

The study’s principal finding was that racial and ethnic disparities in criminal case outcomes in San Francisco are driven mostly by differences in the seriousness of the arresting offense, prior criminal history, and pretrial detention between racial and ethnic groups. California’s Proposition 47, the study found, narrowed disparities for nearly all of the outcomes measured and led to a 50% decrease in the black/white disparity in sentence length.

These results informed internal and collaborative efforts to address disparities, including trainings to identify and address implicit bias within the DA’s office. San Francisco became the first prosecutor’s office in the country to participate in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a nationwide effort of municipal, regional, and state governments working to achieve racial equity. In June of this year, the DA’s office launched the first “blind-charging tool” which uses artificial intelligence to remove racial information from incident reports when prosecutors are deciding whether to file charges in a case.

· Testing Restorative Justice for Juvenile Offenders: Make It Right, a pilot initiative of the DA and the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, is a pre-filing restorative justice alternative for juveniles arrested for felony offenses including burglary, robbery, theft, assault, threat and vandalism. This alternative to prosecution brings juveniles together with those affected by their crimes in an effort to help youth understand the impacts of their actions, change their thought processes, and help steer them away from crime in the future.

Given the high stakes for both the juveniles and the victims, the DA’s office needed a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of the pilot. The pilot was structured as a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard in rigorous research, in order to measure whether the intervention helped participating youth avoid subsequent criminal justice involvement. The California Policy Lab is studying the effects of the pilot, with initial results expected in early 2020.

· Breaking the Cycle of Frequent Arrest: The DA’s office wanted to better understand who the most frequently arrested individuals in San Francisco are, in order to develop interventions targeting their specific needs. Through a partnership between the DA’s office and the Sheriff’s Department, the Policy Lab found that the top one percent of arrestees consisted of 234 individuals who collectively account for an average of 1,200 arrests per year. These individuals were predominately arrested for property crimes but were also six times more likely to be arrested for failing to comply with a court order (such as violating a stay-away order) than other arrestees.

The Policy Lab will build on this work by incorporating anonymized emergency department and behavioral health data from the Department of Public Health to identify potential drivers of this repeat behavior. The goal is to help identify new interventions outside of the justice system to help break this cycle.

· Improving Diversion: San Francisco offers a variety of pre-filing, pretrial, and post-plea diversion programs, including Neighborhood Courts, drug court, and two behavioral health courts. The goal of these specialized programs is to reduce future criminal justice involvement by addressing addiction, mental health, and other social service needs.

The DA’s office partnered with the Policy Lab to assemble the county’s first comprehensive analysis of existing diversion programs. After documenting the flow of defendants into these programs, the Policy Lab is now exploring if such programs work as expected. The RAND Corporation is also partnering with the DA’s Office on a three-year randomized controlled trial to evaluate Neighborhood Courts.

The DA’s office also partnered with a team of researchers and data scientists from Stanford and New York University to improve diversion referrals through the design, deployment, and evaluation of offense-specific risk assessment tools. Tailored evidence-based tools may help the DA’s office and other stakeholders quickly identify effective and equitable courses of action for each defendant. Ultimately, validated risk tools aim to help safely reduce the pretrial incarceration.

Beyond San Francisco

These efforts by the San Francisco DA’s office to better understand prosecutorial decisions and use data to assess the effectiveness of programs provide a model of data-driven prosecution for district attorney offices around the country.

While this profile focuses on the DA’s office, many of San Francisco’s other criminal justice agencies, including the Sheriff, Public Defender, and Police Department, have also fostered research partnerships to advance data-driven decision-making. The county is better off as a result.

Prosecutors in other regions are also using data to inform prosecutorial strategy, evaluate new initiatives, and improve community relations. Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx released six years of felony criminal case data, providing unprecedented transparency into the work of her prosecutor’s office. Nationally, the RAND Corporation studied 16 different prosecutor-led diversion programs, finding they resulted in significant reductions in the likelihood of conviction and future arrest, along with sizable cost savings. The results of these studies, and other efforts, highlight the important role of prosecutors and evidence-based decision making in criminal justice system reform.