The U.S. spends $270 billion on incarceration each year, has a prison population of about 2.2 million and an incarceration rate that’s spiked 220 percent since the 1980s. But with the advent of data science, White House officials are asking experts for help.

On Tuesday, June 7, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Lynn Overmann, who also leads the White House Police Data Initiative, stressed the severity of the nation’s incarceration crisis while asking a crowd of data scientists and artificial intelligence specialists for aid.

“We have built a system that is too large, and too unfair and too costly — in every sense of the word — and we need to start to change it,” Overmann said, speaking at a Computing Community Consortium public workshop.

She argued that the U.S., a country that has the highest amount of incarcerated citizens in the world, is in need of systematic reforms with both data tools to process alleged offenders and at the policy level to ensure fair and measured sentences. As a longtime counselor, advisor and analyst for the Justice Department and at the city and state levels, Overmann said she has studied and witnessed an alarming number of issues in terms of bias and unwarranted punishments.

For instance, she said that statistically, while drug use is about equal between African-Americans and Caucasians, African-Americans are more likely to be arrested and convicted. They also receive longer prison sentences compared to Caucasian inmates convicted of the same crimes.

Other problems, Overmann said, are due to inflated punishments that far exceed the severity of crimes. She recalled her years spent as an assistant public defender for Florida's Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office as an example.

“I represented a client who was looking at spending 40 years of his life in prison because he stole a lawnmower and a weedeater from a shed in a backyard,” Overmann said, “I had another person who had AIDS and was offered a 15-year sentence for stealing mangos.”

Data and digital tools can help curb such pitfalls by increasing efficiency, transparency and accountability, she said.

“We think these types of data exchanges [between officials and technologists] can actually be hugely impactful if we can figure out how to take this information and operationalize it for the folks who run these systems,” Overmann noted.

The opportunities to apply artificial intelligence and data analytics, she said, might include using it to improve questions on parole screenings, using it to analyze police body camera footage, and applying it to criminal justice data for legislators and policy workers.

In Oakland, Calif., where the police department recently deployed body cameras, Overmann said the city has seen a dramatic decline in police use-of-force incidents and citizen use-of-force complaints. The program generates more than 8 terabytes of data per month, something Overmann sees as a huge resource, and a first step, to truly harnessing police data.

“Think of all the things you could learn when you have hundred of thousands, if not millions, of hours of police data on body-worn cameras,” Overmann said. “We would actually be able to know what policing looks like on the street, we would be able to identify not just the officers who are having problems, but also those officers who seem to magically de-escalate any situation they encounter.”