Rethinking Justice: Can Data-Driven Approaches Remove Politics and Bias from Policing?

Modern technology is generating data that allows criminal justice to add shades of gray to what has long been viewed as a black and white issue.

by / September 2, 2016

American prisons and jails don’t stop people from committing crimes again for the same reason that cars aren’t magically repaired after being locked in a garage for 20 years. Sometimes things have to get a lot worse before people think it’s worth the effort to make them better — and America may finally be approaching that point with its criminal justice system.

The public’s general dissatisfaction with policing and criminal justice was crystallized in July when Micah Xavier Johnson shot and killed five Dallas police officers, and injured nine other officers and two civilians.

Johnson’s extreme act was a manifestation of a growing sentiment among Americans, black Americans especially, that U.S. law enforcement is not administered fairly. With high-profile incidents of police shooting civilians (like Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile), a court system that does not seek to rehabilitate, a revolving door on prisons and jails that sees the same inmates again and again, and the growing cost of housing 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, both the public and government are ready for reform.

Crime is a societal problem as old as sin itself, but America’s treatment of the issue has proven so careless that some leaders are now willing to try different approaches. Police departments are using data platforms like Socrata for Public Safety to hold officers accountable and keep the public informed of operations. And through programs like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, states are using data to help case workers, judges and lawmakers make decisions that reduce crime instead of build more prisons. Modern technology is generating data that allows criminal justice to add shades of gray to what has long been viewed as a black and white issue.

In the 1960s, crime was on the rise, but the prison population was not. Short sentences allowed criminals to cycle through the system quickly, and the subsequent public unrest became fertile soil for the “Law and Order” criminal justice system touted by politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Law and Order types are pragmatic and straightforward. They wanted to “clean up the streets” and get people to “straighten up and fly right.” Longer sentences for lesser crimes became the trend in criminal justice as this philosophy took hold. As the 1980s crime wave surfaced, the War on Drugs cinched the noose a bit tighter still.

“The sentences were just incredible,” recalled Tom Lalley, communications manager at Pew Charitable Trusts. “You know, it was 15, 25 years for trafficking drugs and a lot of times these were just people who were hired to drive the truck, that sort of thing.”

The recent legalization of marijuana in some states is part of a larger push back against the War on Drugs and a Law and Order type system that has traditionally not tolerated any discussion of nuance or motivation for criminality. And so the idea that a nonviolent criminal should be removed from society for half his life no longer seems as obvious or rational to people as it once did. Law and Order types believe that incarceration is the way to stop and prevent crime, and in a concrete way, that’s true. Those in prison have a hard time committing crime that affects anyone outside the prison. But this attitude is dismissive of the insidious peripheral effects on society.

After release, most criminals continue the same kind of life they were leading before they got popped. A 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that tracked more than 400,000 prisoners in 30 states found that more than two-thirds of those prisoners were arrested again within three years of release. Within five years, that figure goes up to 76 percent — that’s 309,952 men and women, from a single study, caught in the revolving door of drugs and crime who ding the economy for billions each month. The funds put into state corrections has quadrupled in the last two decades, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and now tops $50 billion annually.

Criminal behavior causes immeasurable damage not only to the nation’s economy and cultural image, but also to the psyches of America’s children, who are themselves at increased risk of imprisonment for the lack of guidance, containment and positive role-modeling that their fathers might have provided had they been present. Criminality is passed down from father to son unconsciously and at a massive scale. It’s sad for those who care on a personal level, but even those who don’t care are going to feel it around tax season and each time they walk the streets or turn on the news.

The more than 2.1 million men locked in American prisons, jails and juvenile correctional facilities account for more than 93 percent of the total American inmate population. The removal of those men from society is hard on each of their emotional well-beings and sense of self-worth, which makes rehabilitation a challenge. But the ordeal is even more detrimental to their families, their children and the nation as a whole.

There are about 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, almost always a dad. About 71 percent of pregnant teenagers are fatherless, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 80 percent of rapists are motivated in part by anger stemming from fatherless childhoods, according to a 1978 study found in Criminal Justice and Behavior Vol. 14. Removing a father from the home makes a student nine times more likely to drop out of high school, according to a report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Absence of a father increases the risk of childhood suicide five-fold, according to the U.S. Department of Health. Children who are abandoned by their fathers are soon to become the same people that society doesn’t know what to do with, and their numbers are growing.

While mothers are thought by the psychology world to be the most important force in early childhood for both boys and girls, the presence of a strong male figure in the home has shown in repeated studies to decrease aggression among boys and reduce (by about 20-fold) the likelihood of a wide range of behavioral disorders, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taking even a single father away from his family creates a seemingly unstoppable chain-reaction felt throughout society. That such a practice is today considered a cultural norm will forever color the pages of history books. When future classrooms look back to review the character of America’s ancient peoples, they may marvel at the readiness with which society swept this problem under the carpet. America may as well be burying nuclear waste — these kinds of problems don’t just go away.

Despite the shooting in Dallas, which was the deadliest incident for U.S. law enforcement since 9/11, the city is at the forefront of data-driven policing. Dallas is one of the few governments in the nation to have released large amounts of officer-involved shooting data — 12 years’ worth in the case of the Dallas Police Department (DPD) — that includes metrics like race and gender of the officers and citizens involved. The idea was to make police officers accountable for their actions.

And it’s working.

“In 2015, our department's excessive force complaints were reduced by 67 percent,” said DPD Police Chief David Brown at a press conference just a few weeks before the fatal police shooting. “And our deadly force incidents have been reduced by 45 percent. So far, this year in 2016, we've had four excessive force complaints. We average between 50 and 200 my whole 33-year career. So this is transformative. And we've averaged between 18 and 25 police-involved shootings [annually] my whole career. We have had two so far this year. Knock on wood, brother. Knock on wood.”

The federal government is gently nudging police departments to be more transparent like Dallas. The Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which began under another name in 2000, threatens to penalize states that do not report the deaths of citizens under law enforcement supervision by cutting Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act funding by 10 percent. This year, the FBI is also considering an extension on use-of-force data collection to include nondeadly incidents.

Kevin Merritt, CEO of Socrata, said police departments should stop waiting for the federal government to decide their policies and take matters into their own hands.

“I emailed [Seattle Police] Chief [Kathleen] O'Toole after what happened in Dallas and I said, ’We've got to accelerate,’” Merritt said. “We've got to go faster about getting all this data online in a format that people can understand.”

To that end, Socrata released in June a new open data platform for public safety — called Socrata for Public Safety — that gives police departments a platform to share their operational data, access and publish data on interactive national crime plotting map CrimeReports, track goals over time, and provide financial transparency. If police don’t share their data and tell their story, the public’s imagination fills that void with another story — and police may not enjoy that narrator.

“There is a fractured relationship between police departments and mostly the minority communities in each of these cities. The reason it's fractured is based on two things. One is the perception that there is profiling going on and that there's a different kind of treatment police officers have for certain minorities than they would for Caucasian folks. The second part of it is social media and the power of this device,” Merritt said, holding up his iPhone.

Smartphone videos like the one made by the girlfriend of Philando Castile, who sat calmly recording as police near St. Paul, Minn., shot and killed him during a routine vehicle stop, make it difficult for even the staunchest police supporters to deny that looking at data might be a more prudent course than the one the county’s been on for the past several decades.

“There are a certain number of people who are constantly going through the jail system, constantly going through the court system, who really aren't criminals,” said Merritt. “These are people who have drug addiction and substance abuse challenges, and they really should be diverted to mental care or to substance abuse care. But because these systems are so disconnected, there's no real opportunity to do that.”

But data-driven approaches are a chance to remove the politics and biases from what has traditionally been a politically stalemated and race-oriented conversation. Data can be manipulated, but when scientific rigor is applied, it’s hard to argue with numbers that show what works and what doesn’t.

“These data silo problems that you hear about are real. Really, an employee cannot find the data they have,” Merritt said. “So part of what we're doing is creating systems where the court system can interface without exposing confidentiality with the health-care system. When the judge is sitting there, and the guy has been here 10 times this year and he keeps breaking and entering and stealing car radios so he can feed his drug addiction, instead of the judge sending you to the county jail, we can say, 'You know what, we've sent you to the county jail nine times in the last year. This is not working. I'm going to divert you to the substance abuse program.’ For the first time, the judge will be able to see there is no room in the county jail, but there is room in this facility for substance abuse.”

Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program under the Bureau of Justice Assistance, 30 states are taking a second look at their justice policies.

South Carolina, for instance, saw its prison population race up from about 9,000 to 25,000 inmates between 1983 and 2009. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative prompted the creation of the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act in 2010, which prioritized incarceration of “high-risk” and violent offenders. Last year, a report was issued showing that South Carolina’s prison population declined almost 10 percent, and nonviolent incarceration decreased 30 percent. This led the state to close two prisons and reduce the capacity of another. The state estimated the act saved $18.7 million in spending.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a worthwhile approach to criminal justice because it removes anecdotal thinking from the equation and gets people looking at processes in an objective way, said Faye Taxman, professor of criminology at George Mason University.

“Our war on drugs has led us to incarcerating people for possession or people who have addiction disorders," she said, "and that’s a very expensive policy when you realize that in most systems anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of the population are drug addicted and might be better served by solid drug treatment programs that are half the cost of incarceration. Maybe that’s a better public strategy.”

Law and Order types are repelled by the idea of coddling criminals, but the justice system today stacks terrible odds against those who start out in life on the wrong foot. For a system that constantly references the term “rehabilitation,” there’s not a whole lot of rehabilitating going on, hence the high rates of recidivism. When prisoners are released, Taxman said, they often emerge much worse off than when they went in. They accrue debt from child support, they lose employment and housing opportunities, and their time inside has often been spent learning how to be a more skilled criminal rather than being more emotionally or psychiatrically attuned.

“The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is under-evaluated in terms of what people have been able to do, but, at least in my view, it has laid a foundation to make reforms and to open up the opportunity of thinking about what else could we do?” Taxman said. “So you’re seeing a lot more attention now given to substance abuse and mental health issues, and that’s because the data’s all showing that there are pockets of people in these institutions, and the institutions can’t really address their needs. I think it’s been a promoter of people thinking about a broader range of approaches that they wouldn’t have thought about without the data.”

Utah began its Justice Reinvestment Initiative program about 18 months ago through development of a data platform built using Apache Hadoop that’s scheduled for launch later this year. Data will be shared across agency functions like criminal justice and human services.

“We’re partnered with local government, counties, and county jails and county mental and behavioral health organizations to get a complete picture of how we’re servicing vulnerable populations in the state,” explained Dave Fletcher, Utah’s chief technology officer. “Based on data, the idea is we can provide data-driven decisions to judges, to people in mental health agencies to provide better solutions that work based on the analytics associated with any given individual.”

States tend to have effective data-sharing programs across criminal justice, said Fletcher, but when a prisoner is released from prison or otherwise crosses into another government function, people slip through the cracks and don’t get the services or treatment they need. This system would allow for real-time data-sharing so case workers and judges aren’t hazarding guesses — they’re looking at accurate, up-to-date data.

“When they come out of the correctional system, there is a certain portion of them that may have substance abuse issues or end up being homeless,” Fletcher explained. “We want to be able to know when that happens so we can intervene proactively rather than waiting for the situation to get worse. And we want to use data to know what kinds of solutions work best … so when they come in for a service, say unemployment, then based on the history we have for that individual, we will know better what kind of jobs to match them up with and what kind of training they’ll need.”

The main challenge around a program like this isn’t technical, said Fletcher, but bureaucratic. There are privacy laws that can make such data-sharing arrangements tedious to facilitate, he said, but it is possible to share that data and they will.

“We’re hoping to save about $550 million through this initiative,” Fletcher said. “Ultimately I think all of this should result in lower cost for government, and better results and better outcomes that are measurable. We don’t always do a good job of measuring the outcomes of all of the programs we have, and I think that’s a big part of this — to do a better job of that.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.