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Getting Smart About Local Governments and Criminal Justice

There are some essential elements for an effective system for reducing arrests and incarceration.

In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder launched a comprehensive review of the nation's criminal justice system to identify reforms that would ensure that federal laws were enforced more fairly and more efficiently. The initial package of recommended reforms was dubbed the Smart on Crime Initiative. Now the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill intended to reduce the federal prison population and reform mandatory minimum sentencing, is before the Senate.

These federal initiatives point the way, but for real progress to be made much of the action will have to come at the local level of government, where offenders typically have their first encounters with the criminal-justice system. That need is reflected in the recent call by more than 130 police chiefs and other top law-enforcement officials to reduce incarceration rates.

What does "smart" mean for our local governments in the context of these issues? It refers to an approach that is citizen-centric and fosters social justice, civic engagement, activism, and transparent and accountable governance; one that provides equal opportunities and reduces inequalities.

A smart arrest-reduction model, and the budget redistribution that such a model would entail, would rebalance police responsibilities. It would return some of the duties now performed by law enforcement back to health professionals, social workers and schools, creating opportunities for more effective forms of intervention and helping to reduce inequalities.

There is much work to be done. More specifically, a smart-city model would need to encompass several essential features:

Improved case management: The Standards of Practice for Case Management were first introduced in 1995 and then revised in 2002. There are six standards, but one of them -- service evaluation -- is rarely performed. A smart city would provide data on parolee/probationer employment, housing and Medicaid outcomes on the home pages of its police, jail and court websites.

Silo busting: Parolees and probationers seek services offered by numerous city agencies, but these agencies often operate as silos - that is, with little interaction with other agencies. Maneuvers that harmonize information and activities across agencies would allow city officials to measure the collective impact of a variety of city services on the outcomes of parolees and those on probation.

Data sharing: Many cities have connected the data systems of their law-enforcement, court and jail systems, but few have connected these data systems to those serving the "no wrong door" social-service systems they have been building. These Web-based systems aim to provide caseworkers with a 360-degree view of a client's needs and available services. Allowing public-safety personnel and social-services caseworkers to collaborate electronically with each other is a smart idea.

Data analysis: Many major cities now have performance-management-focused "stat" systems. However, a few local governments are taking that to a new level with a focus on performance analytics. Chicago, for example, has begun to identify predictor variables and develop simulated models that forecast, prioritize and allocate city resources more efficiently. These analytics would be fine substitutes for our current recidivism-prediction logic models.

Evidence-based practice: Real-time data, easily accessible by both government agencies and the public, could be used to establish evidence-based practices, perhaps employing a mechanism similar to the executive-branch commission that U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed to provide "rigorous impact analysis into program design." As two Brookings Institution scholars put it, "A focus on evidence-based policy making (as opposed to its evil twin, policy-based evidence making) is an important goal." But to create evidence-based practice, we need data on how program inputs translate into outcomes.

Budgeting: Since efforts to reduce arrests, and therefore incarceration and recidivism, will call on a different array of services from today's models, public-safety budgets will need to be reallocated. That will need to involve a process of budget simulation: collecting and analyzing data on arrests, goals for arrest reduction, savings that would result from meeting those goals, and the impact of redistribution across public, private and nonprofit social-service providers.

What many of these steps have in common is a reliance on government that is networked as never before. That's something that public-management experts have been advocating for decades, and modern tools provide the best opportunity yet to achieve it. Every area of government can benefit, but none more than our efforts to bring greater social justice into our criminal-justice system.

A retired Texas A&M professor who now teaches at the University of the District of Columbia
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