#DataDrivenJustice: Partnering with the White House to Help Reduce Unnecessary Incarceration

Code for America fellow Meredith Hitchcock working with the Seattle Police Department on a new crisis response tool.

When people talk about the high rate of incarceration in the United States, the discussion often centers on the prison population. An average of 550,000 people walk into the prison gates each year. In fact, people in the US are much more likely to see the inside of a jail — individuals are booked into local jails over 11 million times each year.

Jails are where most of the continuous cycling of individuals and communities through the criminal justice system takes place. Jails are where more than 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime, but who are awaiting trial without sufficient funds to bail out, will spend the night tonight, and where two million people with mental illness are booked each year.

If our country succeeds in transforming our criminal justice system, a lot of the work to make it more fair, just, and effective will happen at the local level and will involve decisions about who goes to jail, how long they stay, and what community-based alternatives exist to hold people accountable and help put them on a better path.

As a product manager on Code for America’s safety and justice team, I am honored to partner everyday with communities and local criminal justice agencies that are working to understand how data and technology can help advance these changes.

Let’s be clear. Technology is not going to solve the structural inequalities that overcrowd our jails and prisons.

What an iterative, user-centered, and data-driven approach to government will do, though, is give everyone the tools they need to think more deeply and rigorously about strategies to reduce our jail populations.

Through my work at Code for America I have been afforded a unique opportunity to join President Obama’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative (WH DDJ) which comprises of a broad coalition of state, county, and city governments that are working to implement data-driven approaches to improve public health and safety, and reduce unnecessary incarceration. The initiative is creating spaces for open and honest conversations with leaders in the justice system, service providers, research institutions, and the community about reengineering the process for diverting people experiencing mental illness and substance abuse issues from jail and reducing jail stays for people awaiting trial.

To continue this work, Code for America is piloting our jail population management tool, which visualizes real-time jail data for county stakeholders to address jail overcrowding, in 4 counties this year. We’re also developing a crisis response tool in partnership with the Seattle Police Department. It’s an app for patrol officers to use before and during interactions with individuals in mental health-related crises who are also in frequent contact with the police. Focused on making individualized response plans more available to officers in the field, including information about how to de-escalate those interactions and divert individuals away from jail and to community services.

I am humbled to be a part of this initiative — this movement — of law enforcement, service providers, foundations, academia, and healthcare practitioners throughout the nation.

Together, we can build a better justice system.