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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.