Strength in Numbers: How Justice Practitioners & Researchers Are Using Data and Technology to Enhance Public Safety

In September 2016, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) convened the BJA Smart Suite Summit: Transforming Criminal Justice through Research and Innovation, gathering BJA Smart Suite grantees, researchers, national experts, federal representatives, and thought leaders from the justice community to discuss and promote data-informed criminal justice projects and programs. The BJA Smart Suite model represents a forward-thinking approach to addressing many of the challenges facing those in the justice field, emphasizing practitioner-researcher partnerships which leverage data, evidence, and innovation to develop strategies and interventions that are effective and economical and ultimately improve community safety.

More than 400 individuals attended the three-day Summit which featured more than 40 workshops, learning labs, and plenary sessions where justice practitioners from across the country discussed their successful efforts impacting every area of the criminal justice system. This TTA Spotlight article highlights three workshops from the Summit which embody BJA Smart Suite and represent successful collaborative initiatives between practitioners and researchers.

Workshop Spotlights

Evidence-Based Strategies for Prosecutors

Prosecutors from two of the largest metro areas in the country discussed a pair of innovative diversion programs currently being implemented under the BJA Smart Suite, Smart Prosecution portfolio. While programming is meant to meet the specific needs of these jurisdictions, it has applicability across the justice system for all communities looking for solutions to curb recidivism.

Harris County, Texas, which includes the City of Houston and surrounding jurisdictions, is a hot-bed for human trafficking in the United States, and county prosecutors often face many challenges in handling prostitution cases, especially when they involve juvenile offenders. Historically, prostitution cases in Harris County had been litigated using fixed sentencing guidelines based on offense, but with an increasing number of prostitution re-offenses (many among juveniles), prosecutors sought out new approaches for processing these cases and for better combating human trafficking and prostitution as a whole. A prostitution conviction can negatively impact an individual’s ability to find housing and employment, which commonly results in recidivism and an inability to escape from the culture of this illegal profession. New programming allows selected individuals (typically first-time offenders) to avoid a Scarlet Letter-type prostitution conviction through court-mandated diversion stipulations, understanding that these individuals are very often victims of abuse and coercion. County prosecutors are concurrently working with law enforcement in Harris County to more effectively combat prostitution by targeting johns and pimps.

A similar diversionary approach is being undertaken by prosecutors in St. Louis County, Missouri focused on individuals charged with illegal gun possession offenses. County prosecutors spoke of a growing local gun culture where a notable number of offenders, often teenagers, were carrying firearms for show but not specifically to perpetrate violent crime. Prior to February 2016, St. Louis County had no formal diversion programming to address illegal gun possession crimes, but earlier this year the county instituted a Gun Redirect Program for eligible misdemeanor and felony offenders. By providing certain individuals with minimal or no criminal history the opportunity to participate in a 12-month probationary period of rehabilitation, responsibility, and restitution mandates, the program aims to change the mindset of offenders on unlawful possession of firearms and chip away at the culture surrounding guns and gun violence.

While the Harris County and St. Louis County diversion programs are independent of one another and address distinct, endemic justice issues in each community, they both fundamentally function to reduce recidivism and provide younger offenders (though not exclusively) with alternatives to the cycles of criminality and work to alleviate the burden on local justice systems.

Developing Organic Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships

To demonstrate the collaborative spirit of Smart Suite, the “Developing Organic Research-Practitioner Partnerships” workshop featured panelists representing both the justice and academic fields who spoke first-hand about the importance of establishing robust partnerships to affect change.

Dr. Angela Hawken of the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University related her experiences working with justice practitioners, noting that despite inherent differences between the two fields, programmatic successes can be best achieved through collaboration and consensus. Dr. Hawken stressed that conducting research in a justice setting is often very different from academia: research timelines and expectations may differ; turnover in personnel affecting research efforts (such as the departure of an administrator) may be likelier within justice agencies; and justice personnel may not have the same familiarity with data science as academics. 

A pair of justice practitioners, both of whom have worked directly with Dr. Hawken, shared their unique experiences being on the other side of research studies. Chief Deputy Chris Hoy of the Clackamas County, Oregon Sheriff’s Office spoke at length about his agency’s multifaceted approach to addressing recidivism. One effort in particular which aligns with the BJA Smart Suite concept of leveraging technologies to enhance public safety efforts is taking a low-cost, technology-driven approach to reminding probationers of upcoming mandatory probation visits - Chief Hoy’s office implemented a text message communications pilot program. By sending text reminders directly to individuals, the agency was able to reduce missed visits by approximately one-third.

Sonya Dunlap of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction discussed her agency’s efforts to reduce incarceration rates in four Ohio counties. By leveraging existing and proven justice sanctions and diversion models (e.g., the nationwide Helping Ourselves Pursue Enrichment or HOPE service delivery model), and modifying them to meet the needs of individual jurisdictions, the agency was able to implement new community sanction approaches to reduce incarceration rates. Dunlap focused on the importance of adaptability and innovation in the design and implementation of pilot programs and research trials. She also emphasized that justice research efforts are often enhanced by input from personnel at all levels of an agency, not just administrators.

Innovative Uses of PDMP Data

Another session profiled two Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP) in Delaware and Washington which have effectively integrated multiple datasets to geographically identify hot-spots with disproportionate levels of prescription drug use and overdoses.

Prescription drug abuse is a nationwide epidemic affecting millions of individuals. Indicators of abuse patterns continue to rise, including emergency room visits, deaths and overdoses, and arrests. By leveraging data from criminal justice agencies, governments, and public health sources, PDMP personnel from Delaware and Washington have been able to proactively coordinate multiagency and multidisciplinary efforts by locality.

Practitioners in Delaware have extensively geocoded data to better examine the prescription drug abuse epidemic statewide, yielding results that reveal some interesting trends. For example, while the southern portion of Delaware has a greater number of opiate prescriptions (due in large part to an older population), the region has fewer deaths from opioids compared to the northern portion where such drugs are often abused without a physician’s prescription and are more likely to be illegally purchased with cash rather than through insurance. While justice practitioners, public health experts, and researchers may have already been aware of such trends, data integration of this type can confirm hypotheses and better inform response efforts.

A similar approach has been undertaken in Washington, where program personnel have developed a web-based geographic information system (GIS) mapping tool which integrates multiple datasets to generate locality prescription reports and trends on prescription opioid and heroin deaths. Stakeholders can use the tool to more easily identify service and treatment needs, system gaps, and allocate resources. Innovative approaches to implementation of PDMPs like the ones in Washington and Delaware align with the fundamental mission of the BJA Smart Suite and will serve as models for other states and jurisdictions moving forward.

To learn more about these workshops and other BJA Smart Suite efforts discussed at the Summit, and to access workshop speaker presentations, please click here.  

If you would like additional information about the topics presented at the BJA Smart Suite Summit or have questions about the event, reach to BJA NTTAC at