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The Power of Networking in Reforming Criminal Justice

A new knowledge-exchange platform aims to bring collaboration to bear on efforts to improve the use of data.

Criminal-justice reformers are working tirelessly to create a system that reduces incarceration while maintaining safety by restoring police-community relations, reimagining what incarceration should be, reducing time spent in jail for those awaiting trial and designing novel crisis intervention teams to help divert the mentally ill into treatment. There is no doubt that the need for reform and innovation is urgent.

Data will increasingly play a crucial role in making these efforts successful. The application of new computer-aided statistical methods -- often referred to as data science -- to the vast "big data" storehouse of public datasets can help with understanding past performance and even with foretelling future outcomes, such as predicting crimes and recidivism. When analyzed and used appropriately, data allows for a better understanding and segmentation of relevant populations, matching people to programs more effectively, and measuring what works.

During President Obama's administration, the White House championed a Data-Driven Justice (DDJ) initiative focused on helping state and local jurisdictions identify and make better use of their own and others' data. But after investing in and focusing on collecting data, state and local governments are struggling to determine how to move from collection to responsible and effective use and analysis. In a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of criminal-justice professionals, only 39 percent reported even employing researchers on staff to evaluate performance, and the survey revealed wide disparities in the embrace of data-driven decision-making. More recently, in a Governance Lab survey of criminal-justice coordinating councils, 53 percent reported that they did some data analysis at the individual agency level, but a full 22 percent reported that they did no data analysis at all.

To help rectify this situation, the Justice Management Institute and the GovLab, in collaboration with the National Association of Counties, the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation, have launched the Data Justice Network, a knowledge-exchange platform that aims to accelerate data-driven justice reforms by facilitating better collaboration among criminal-justice practitioners and policymakers.

The platform, built with support from a grant by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, allows justice officials to find colleagues with relevant experience in working with data -- ranging from high-level strategy, coordination, regulatory and legal compliance to working with vendors, analytics and reporting -- as well as justice-specific experience in areas such as crime prevention, pretrial procedures, mental health treatment and recidivism reduction. Users can share their innovative projects to gain visibility and inspire others while learning from their peers about what works, what doesn't and how to implement new programs.

Even though practitioners cite colleagues (85 percent) and conferences (77 percent) as the top resources for learning about new ideas on criminal-justice programs, such opportunities are far too infrequent and limited by budgets and time constraints. Indeed, a recent Justice Management Institute report points out that the level of collaboration among criminal-justice practitioners is one of "isolated sharing of know-how." This leads in too many cases to reinventing of the wheel and doesn't help with improving criminal-justice outcomes.

Social technologies like the Data Justice Network can potentially transform how justice practitioners gain and share knowledge. This makes it much faster and easier to learn, for instance, how to share data between behavioral-health and criminal-justice agencies; how to design performance benchmarks for measuring the impact of intervention programs; or how to publish open data about court processing times.

Moreover, these kinds of technologies of expertise can make it possible to identify those with the right experience to consult with before starting a project, which can help raise the likelihood of the success of new programs while lowering their costs, thereby improving both effectiveness and efficiency.

For these technologies to realize their transformative potential, however, institutions need to leverage tools like the Data Justice Network as a means to an end, taking active ownership by applying best practices and actively encouraging knowledge sharing to help nurture a culture of collaboration. It's the surest and fastest route to genuine reform.

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