How Better Data Is Easing the Burden on Corrections Systems
Work that began as a civic hack — a part-time passion project for a group of Google engineers — is bringing corrections operations into the 21st century, helping tens of thousands move out of the system.
Few people who hear someone is “stuck in prison” are likely to wonder how a data system could have let that happen. But a shockingly large number of Americans are held in confinement or on parole because disjointed data makes it hard to see when they meet terms for release.
Not long ago, Clementine Jacoby was a product manager at Google. Company policy allowed her to spend 20 percent of her time on a project that interested her, and she went straight to a problem she’d been chewing on for years.
As she worked to understand how this could be so hard, she realized something was missing that could be game-changing: the software engineering and data science expertise that keeps the tech sector ahead of the rest of society.
Today Jacoby leads a nonprofit, Recidiviz, that grew out of her 20 percent project. She co-founded Recidiviz in 2019 with her Google collaborators. Since then, it has helped about 70,000 people make it out of corrections systems and back to their families and communities.
Recidiviz is working in 11 states that account for 25 percent of all Americans in prison or parole. Based on what she’s learned so far, 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,” says Jacoby. “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.”
Overburdened corrections departments would be just as happy to see these things happen as would inmates and parolees. But they can’t see what’s possible if their data management practices make it hard to track progress through their systems and programs.
Recidiviz is changing this with a team of engineers and data analysts who have left other tech companies such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook to help state corrections departments make the best possible use of their energy and resources.
Vision Comes First
Jacoby sees big changes in perspective just from explaining the problem her group is addressing. People are shocked to learn that hugely consequential 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.
The problems in these systems may be complicated, but that doesn’t mean solutions to them have to be, she says. “Like a lot of these gnarly social problems, the solution can be quite simple and elegant once you’ve deeply understood what needs to be done.”
The states that have partnered with Recidiviz to date have corrections leaders with a clear vision of where they want to go, Jacoby says. “Data is actually not that helpful if you don’t have that.”
When Recidiviz comes to a state, it usually encounters a mix of siloed resources. These range from data systems to spreadsheets into which data is manually entered, says Lily Fielding, its state engagement manager.
It brings all this data into software its team has created around a state-of-the-art data schema — a “blueprint” for data organization and relationships between database elements that makes it possible for previously isolated data sets to “talk” to each other.
On top of the schema, it builds software tools relevant to the focus of a partner 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 Fielding.
These tools yield real-time insights into such things as the success of individual prison rehabilitation programs, how many parolees under the supervision of each parole officer make it through to discharge, or the conditions that remain to be met for a prisoner or parolee to earn release. This is all available through dashboards.
“We also do data analysis and longer-term research projects that are aimed at answering the big questions that aren't as answerable by a software tool,” Fielding says. “It’s a blend of both things.”
"Technical" violations are not new offenses, and can include anything from missing an appointment to being in the same room as alcohol or another parolee. Upgraded data infrastructure makes it possible to analyze these events and look for ways to reduce the number of parolees who return to prison for non-criminal behavior.
Making Data Actionable
Anne Precythe, director of corrections for the state of Missouri, began her career in North Carolina, starting as a probation officer and working her way up to director of community corrections. She oversees 19 prisons, which currently hold about 23,700 inmates, and about 50,000 people under community supervision, prison or parole.
Corrections has traditionally been underfunded when it comes to technology infrastructure, Precythe says. “We put an extraordinary amount of information in systems that we can’t get it out of, and don’t know how to make it actionable.”
The data infrastructure from Recidiviz has changed that. Precythe says it’s given her new insight into the work of probation and parole officers — such things as which violations occur in high-risk populations, how frequent they are, what responses to them are most effective. This helps clarify what good case management should look like.
Precythe is eager to see what she can learn about “restrictive housing,” separating inmates from the general population. “We’ve never been able to look at reports that told us the real length of time that people spend in restrictive housing and what the behaviors were that got them there,” she says. “We can begin to figure out how we can really help people work their way out of segregation.”
Data can be viewed statewide, by region, by district, by unit or by officer. Officers can see how they’re doing in comparison to their peers, or units how they compare to other units with similar caseloads. This can bring common denominators of success into view.
Data is formatted in the same way in every state in which Recidiviz is working, and sharing data between states creates additional learning opportunities and benchmarks for comparison, Precythe says. At a convening of all 11 states, she received copies of “about 15” reports that other states had generated to see what Missouri data told them about their priority areas.
“We’re focused on our most critical needs at the moment, but my peers were looking at things that are equally important,” she says. “I just didn’t know to look for them.”
Michigan’s Department of Corrections has a long history of using data to drive its work, says Heidi Washington, its director. At present, about 32,000 prisoners, 33,000 probationers and 10,000 parolees are under its jurisdiction.
Recidiviz is helping her do more with the data. “I’m looking at using the tools they have developed for us to drill down even farther in those populations,” she says. “Who’s in the population, and why are they here?”
Washington will get a better picture of how many in the prison population are there because they violated parole or probation. A detailed view of what led to these outcomes can help improve supervision, so more could achieve timely release into the community.
Software tools have been introduced that will help field staff spend less time on paperwork and more on mentoring people under their supervision or helping them with problems such as finding housing.
The next step for Michigan is bringing Recidiviz software into the prison system. A refined view of operations can inform policy decisions around things such as segregation and housing and programming, which have a direct impact on how people do their time and when they get out of prison, Washington says.
The public might not realize it, but her department isn’t mainly about punishment. “Our mission is to help people change their lives, be more successful and hopefully not interact again with the criminal justice system,” says Washington.
Even more important, she says, is stopping the trajectory of people coming behind them so that they don't enter the criminal justice system at all. Recidiviz hasn’t yet brought its full skill set to this challenge, with so much ground yet to gain in state incarceration practices.
Raising the Ceiling
Better data can point the way to improvements, and it can also help raise the morale of public servants working in a highly stressful field. Their performance has been measured largely by the number of people who return to prison, something decided in courts.
Precythe doesn’t think it makes sense for corrections systems to measure outcomes only by their failures. Improving data infrastructure and analytics makes it possible to see how many people complete supervision, get jobs, maintain a stable residence or have a positive family environment. Telling these stories can change the way legislators, and the public, see corrections.
“It’s really important for me as a director, and for my peers, to promote the good work that is being done,” says Precythe. “We see way more success in this field than the general public probably knows or even wants to believe.”
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.”
“Hitting the ceiling” for this work would mean that everyone in the corrections system was on their best path out of it, one that would keep them from re-offending and returning to it, says Fielding. In the longer term, data and data analysis could inform policy and sentencing decisions.
With active projects in 11 states and five more state partnerships in development, Recidiviz is reaching the limits of its current capacity. Even with that, “We definitely still want people to reach out,” Jacoby says.
There's not a shortage of technical resources. 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."