As part of a broader program to reform the nation's criminal justice system, the White House announced on June 30 the Data-Driven Justice Initiative (DDJ), which aims to reform criminal justice through three main strategies: improving communities, reforming sentencing and investing in the process of re-entry to society.
And the initiative intends to use its partners and proven strategies to accomplish this. The initiative takes root through a coalition of 67 states, cities and counties with support from many private-sector and philanthropic organizations, including Amazon Web Services, Esri, the Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship program, Code for America, Triggr Health, the National Association of Counties and New York University's Governance Lab.
Data-Driven Justice Initiative Participants Include ...
Communities interested in joining the DDJ initiative can respond to the White House's call to action here.
"We have engaged local leaders who have adopted data-driven, evidence-based strategies, and we've facilitated the sharing of their best practices in order to help other jurisdictions scale up and accelerate their utilization of these success stories," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama.
In announcing the initiative, officials relied heavily on data and statistics themselves to illustrate the severity of the nation's criminal justice problems.
"More than 11 million people annually move through our country's local jails, many charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses," Jarrett said. "They spend an average of 23 days behind bars, yet only 5 percent are convicted and sent to prison. We've seen the extraordinary cost of running these systems, both the toll it exacts on individuals, families and communities, but also the cost to the American taxpayer. The White House Council of Economic Advisors found that local and state governments spend approximately $270 billion a year on criminal justice, with 22 billion on incarceration alone."
The nation's 3,100 local jails filter more than 11 million people through the system each year, 64 percent of whom suffer from some form of mental illness, 68 percent of whom suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, and 44 percent of whom suffer from chronic health issues, according to the White House.
Our criminal justice program isn't as smart, safe or fair as it should be, Obama said last year. This program is one piece of his attempt to change that, with particular focus on the drug addicted, mentally affected and chronically ill people who struggle through the criminal justice system.
"We joined the Data-Driven Justice Initiative because we've seen that there are people in our county jails that quite simply don't need to be there," said Ben McAdams, mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah. "Let me start with people held before trial before they've been convicted of any crime. If they're not a risk to my community, and will return to court for hearings, there's no reason they should be held in jail."
Further, McAdams said, those with mental illness and addiction or in need of any other service that government can facilitate will benefit from this program.
"We believe that by linking data across our criminal justice and health systems, while making sure we protect privacy, that we can identify the people who are most in need and then connect them to services that will provide much-needed stability in their lives," he said.
Knoxville, Tenn., is another participating city, and Police Chief David Rausch, who's been with the police department for 23 years, also noted those as mentally ill being a reason for joining the initiative.
"A good part of my career was as a patrol officer and I know first-hand the challenges from a law-enforcement perspective of trying to meet the needs of people with mental illness," he said. "I can tell you that there's almost nothing more frustrating to a police [officer] than seeing someone who clearly needs help and having the only options available as jail or hospital emergency rooms, both very costly and not appropriate locations for those individuals."
His city needs to be smarter and more effective about how they allocate their resources, he said, and shuffling the same people around their jails and hospitals isn't it.
"That's why about eight years ago, the Knoxville Police Department forged a relationship with the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC), a local nonprofit organization that provides housing and case-management services to people with mental illness, substance use disorders and other issues," Rausch said. "My officers now have a place they can refer people to get them the services that they need. Since we first started in 2008, VMC has housed more than 950 people and provided key services to more than 50,000 people."
That other communities can learn from the partnership between VMC and the Knoxville Police Department is but one of the many aspects of the DDJ initiative. Additional programs and partnerships span the nation and include participants from government at all levels, philanthropic organizations and private industry.
Other resources and partnerships included in the DDJ initiative announced thus far include:
Dozens more similar programs and partnerships can be found on a fact sheet published by the White House.
This article was originally published in Government Technology.