Better data is shrinking the US corrections system

Award-winning work that began as a part-time passion project for a group of Google engineers is bringing corrections operations into the 21st century and thus helping tens of thousands move out of the system, says a recent story in Governing.

But it is not just – as you might think at first – a ‘nerdy’ story about data and data systems. This quite amazing story is really about family.. A long time ago, when Clementine Jacoby was a child, her 19-year-old uncle was sent to jail for ten years for a non-violent offence. He came back when she was 15, but couldn’t seem to escape the clutches of the corrections system. A few months after being released from jail, he was sent back for a non-violent parole violation.

“For my family, the fact that one in four prison admissions are driven not by a crime but by someone who’s broken a rule on probation and parole was really profound because that happened to my uncle,” she says. The experience led her to begin studying criminal justice in high school, then college. She continued her dive into how the criminal justice system works as part of her Passion Project while at Google, which allows employees to spend 20% of their time on pro-bono work.

Two colleagues whose family members had also been stuck in the system and had a similar passion to help fix a system that wasn’t working well because of bad data, joined her. They formed a team to work on the project and that grew into a nonprofit, Recidiviz, that has helped about 70,000 people make it out of corrections systems and back to their families and communities since 2019. 

That was because they discovered that, while the US has more people in prison than any other country, corrections departments haven’t been able to analyze the data they collect in order to track what happens to each inmate, and then use their learning to improve outcomes.

Jan. 16, 2023 TED Talk on YouTube

.Recidiviz works with states to sort out data bases that have, over the years, grown like Topsy but don’t ‘talk’ with each other, meaning that the people who manage the systems don’t have ‘actionable’ information to manage the individuals within those systems.

People are shocked to learn that systems with tens of thousands of employees and billions of budget dollars don’t have cutting-edge analysis of how their programs are impacting outcomes, Jacoby says. But the solutions can be ‘quite simple and elegant once you’ve deeply understood what needs to be done,” she says.

Jacoby estimates there are as many as 250,000 people nationally who could be accelerated toward freedom, starting now. “These could be people who are in prison today who are eligible to serve the rest of their sentence at home,” she told Governing. “They could be people who are eligible to earn a lot of time off of their sentence with programs that are available, but that they don’t know about.”

With its team of engineers and data analysts, Recidiviz has created a “blueprint” that makes it possible for previously isolated data sets to “talk” to each other and then builds software tools relevant to the state. “We organize data in a way that allows us to view the journey of a person through every piece of the system that they might touch and see everything that happens to them,” says Lily Fielding, its state engagement manager.

It is an amazing story, told well in a video that explains how Recidiviz came to exist, how it works, and the policy implications of its work. It’s well worth watching.

Having better data means that the corrections discussion can change from measuring performance based on failure – how many people return to prison – to measuring achievement – how many people complete supervision, get jobs, maintain a stable residence or have a positive family environment. 

“It’s really important for me as a director, and for my peers, to promote the good work that is being done,” says Anne Precythe, director of corrections for the state of Missouri. “We see way more success in this field than the general public probably knows or even wants to believe.”

She began her career in North Carolina, starting as a probation officer and working her way up to director of community corrections. In her present post, she oversees 19 prisons, which currently hold about 23,700 inmates, and about 50,000 people under community supervision, prison or parole.

Recidiviz is shifting the “what’s working” discussion in two ways, says Jacoby. “The first is let’s get precise about what success metric you really care about. The second is let’s give it to you in a timely fashion, because if it’s not timely you can’t act on it — if you’re rolling out a new program and spending many taxpayer dollars on it, you don’t want to know if it’s working five years from now.”

With projects in 11 states and five more state partnerships in development, Recidiviz is reaching the limits of its current capacity but still wants people to reach out, Jacoby said. A growing number of software engineers and data scientists are looking for opportunities to serve the public, she says. “They want to be working on important problems, and they want to be working on them in a way that scales and that uses their technology skills.”


How Better Data Is Easing the Burden on Corrections Systems Governing, Oct. 12, 2023

Recidiviz’s Origin Story | Shaping a Data-Informed Criminal Justice System Recidiviz, Feb. 27, 2023

How Bad Data Traps People in the US Justice System | Clementine Jacoby | TED Talk. Jan. 16, 2023

New tech for prison reform spreads to 11 states. Leaps, Jan. 13, 2023

Cover image: Pixabay/Pexels