It’s an oft-repeated statistic: The United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but it’s home to almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
The Obama administration believes better data within the criminal justice system could correct that imbalance. Which is why today, the White House announced its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative, through which 67 cities and states will work with each other, as well as with leading tech companies like Amazon and Palantir, to find new ways to use data to shrink the size of their local prison populations.
“What we’ve seen as we’ve engaged with state and local leaders across the country is that there are people who simply do not need to be in our jails,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President, said on a call with journalists today. Taking a closer look at the data, she said, can help identify who those people are.
In some cities, that’s already starting to happen. The White House pointed to one example in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which began diving into its own data back in 2014 to find low-risk people in jail who could be released early. That intervention led to a 40 percent reduction in the county jail population. “That’s 40 percent, and they have had no increase in reported crime,” Jarrett said. “Pretty amazing.”
Of course, data mining is not the forte of most local law enforcement, which is why the White House is also asking for the tech industry’s help. As part of the announcement, Amazon is convening a consortium on data interventions in criminal justice that will be attended by companies like Palantir and organizations like Code for America.
The goal of the summit, according to Lynn Overmann, senior policy advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, is to convene the country’s top data scientists, technologists, and developers together with local governments to figure out “the solutions most likely to work as broadly as possible.”
Some tech companies are donating their existing tools to the member cities and states. For instance, RapidSOS, a company that allows people to submit their exact location data to emergency personnel, is offering its product to five cities for free for the next 10 years. Several research institutions like New York University and the University of Chicago are also partnering with cities and states to research their data strategies.
In a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything, prison reform has become an unlikely unifier. Recently, House speaker Paul Ryan has become an outspoken advocate for sentencing reform. That type of across-the-aisle support could help these data efforts spread more quickly.
Already, among the seven states that signed on to the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, three have Republican governors. As part of the commitment, they promise to merge criminal justice and health system data to identify people who are most at risk, create new protocols for first responders dealing with mental health issues, and inform pre-trial release decisions.
Of course, using technology to decide whether someone stays behind bars or not is sure to be fraught with controversy as these programs roll out all over the country. After all, if people are concerned about algorithms deciding the news they see, what happens when algorithms decide a person’s freedom?
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