As states look for new ways to save money through data sharing and analytics, prison costs have come into focus. The National Governors Association (NGA) announced on Feb. 20 the selection of three states — Illinois, Iowa and Tennessee — that will receive grants to participate in a program targeted at justice information sharing that could lead to cost savings.

The program, called the Cross Boundary Corrections Information Exchange Policy Academy, shows high-level officials of participating states how they can share information between departments to reduce prisoner recidivism, save money and increase public safety. Funded primarily through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the program is designed to help governors and other top officials establish the policy framework necessary so that information can be shared between departments.

For prisoners to successfully integrate back into society after being incarcerated, they need certain things, said Thomas MacLellan, director of the NGA's Homeland Security and Public Safety Division.

“There’s a lot of data that show when offenders don’t have certain supports they tend to recidivate at higher rates and when they do have certain supports, they recidivate at a lower rate,” he explained. If states can identify which services or needs are missing, perhaps they can fill those gaps and boost the economy by turning prisoners into functional members of society.

Years ago, MacLellan said, the NGA was working with a state that couldn’t determine why in one region offenders were serving an average of about 25 percent more of their sentence.

“In the eastern part of the state, men were serving six years of their minimum/maximum,” he said. “In another part of the state, men who had identical risk profiles, risk scores, similar offenses, were serving seven to eight. That has real dollar implications, and they didn’t know why because they weren’t able to look across the information that was there. Those are the kind of things we’re hoping to get to.”

The first policy academy meeting is slated to take place in Washington, D.C., in May or June. “That’s a two-day meeting where we’re bringing together each of the teams with a national faculty of experts who helps us really think through and help educate the states on some of the best practices out there," MacLellan said. Throughout the summer, policy workshops will be held with the individual states and there will be an opportunity for technical staff members to participate, so they can work out some implementations.

“That returning offender needs job services or needs mental health services or health services or they need good contact with their parole supervisors, but to do that, people have to have the right information in their hands,” MacLellan said. For example, if offenders miss their medication during transition to the outside, they can relapse and it can be a huge hurdle for them to get over.

“They are less likely to have a successful transition into the community,” he said. “They can’t get a job, they can’t take care of their health care, they’re more likely to end up back in the system. So what we’re trying to do is help states take their information infrastructure and optimize it in a way that conforms with the global standards with the end result being supportive of prisoner re-entry best practices.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.