Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

New Code for America Project Seeks To 'MoneyBall' Criminal Justice System

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, October 4 2012

Photo: Shutterstock

One of the more startling facts of life in the United States in 2012 is that crime rates are generally lower than they were in 1980, yet law enforcement authorities are jailing people at a far higher rate than they were three decades ago.

Criminal justice reform advocates point to the trend, and the fact that just under two thirds of county jail populations in America's 3,000 prisons are people merely awaiting trial as a sign that there's something deeply inefficient about the process of criminal law enforcement in the United States. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder noted in a speech last year that this system of mass incarceration is costing taxpayers $9 billion.

"The reality is that it doesn't have to be this way — almost all of these individuals could be released and supervised in their communities," he said.

A couple of new Code for America projects unveiled this week will seek to broach the issue under the leadership of city policymakers in Louisville, Kentucky and New York City. Former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, now a vice president at the non profit the Arnold Foundation in New York City will guide the effort.

Like a growing number of criminal justice reformers in the United States, Milgram believes that better data collection and statistical analysis could help local law enforcement officials make better, more rationale decisions — just as policymakers are doing in the fields of healthcare and businesspeople are doing in sports.

"The idea is to moneyball criminal justice, to pull together data from all these different sources, from all these different people, and to be able to figure out who’s doing what, what’s happening, and what types of applications can be created to make the system work better, work fairer, and reduce crime and be more efficient," she told a roomful of people at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco this week, referring to Michael Lewis' book about the economics of baseball and statistical analysis.

The subject of criminal justice reform is especially pertinent to cash-strapped states and counties, she noted, since prison spending forms one of the biggest part of state budgets.

The fellows have yet to be assigned, and the full details of how Milgram and New York and Kentucky will approach the issue have yet to be hashed out. But the idea is to formulate a systematic method of collecting verifiable and reliable information about the people who are arrested that can be analyzed to assess risk.

Milgram said that she first got the idea when she was New Jersey's attorney general. Her office had jurisdiction over the state's 9,500 person criminal enforcement system, and so she took regular meetings with local police. One of the towns that she dealt with was Camden, which was, and still is, known as the most dangerous city in America.

"When I got there, I was struck by the lack of data and technology," Milgram recalled. "What they had were yellow stickies: The captain in charge of homicide would stand up in meetings and hold up a yellow sticky and say: ‘Well, last week we had three homicides. Here are the addresses, we have no suspects.' And then the person sitting next to him in charge of robberies would say: 'Last week, we had 40 robberies, here are the locations, we have no suspects.'"

That’s not data — at least, it’s not data that can be used practically to fight crime. We changed that by using technology to convince the police department to not only collect the data, but also to use it"

In a follow-up interview, Milgram acknowledges that crime is still a serious problem in Camden, but she notes that the city has suffered severe cuts to its police force, which hobbled the effectiveness of her reforms.

A study from the non-profit group the Pretrial Justice Institute published earlier this year confirms Milgram's central thesis: The operations of local law enforcement are impenetrable because those local law enforcement authorities haven't gathered enough reliable data about the people that they arrest, and even when they do, they don't have the information technology to store and analyze the relevant information.

Milgram finds that incredible, given the amount of money that's being spent on putting people away.

"I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year talking with police chiefs, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, jails, prisons, probations officers and parole, and I’ve asked them: ‘Who’s in your system?’ What offenses are driving your system? How long are people staying? How long does it take for people to make bail? What’s the average amount of time that people are staying?' They can’t answer those questions," she said.

She hopes to begin to change this with her work at the Arnold Foundation, and Code for America. CfA's Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka acknowledges that the one-year program won't change the system overnight, but the goal is to establish a framework from which criminal justice reformers can move forward.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Civic Hackers Call on de Blasio to Fill Technology Vacancies

New York City technology advocates on Wednesday called on the de Blasio administration to fill vacancies in top technology policy positions, expressing some frustration at the lack of a leadership team to implement a cohesive technology strategy for the city. GO

China's Porn Purge Has Only Just Begun, And Already Sina Is Stripped of Publication License

It seems that China is taking spring cleaning pretty seriously. On April 13 they launched their most recent online purge, “Cleaning the Web 2014,” which will run until November. The goal is to rid China's Internet of pornographic text, pictures, video, and ads in order to “create a healthy cyberspace.” More than 100 websites and thousands of social media accounts have already been closed, after less than a month. Today the official Xinhua news agency reported that the authorities have stripped the Internet giant Sina (of Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site) of its online publication license. This crackdown on porn comes on the heels of a crackdown on “rumors.” Clearly, this spring cleaning isn't about pornography, it's about censorship and control.

GO

wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

More