Series| Catalysts
The missing data in criminal justice reform

This Y Combinator startup is building new, criminal justice technology solutions to sustainably reduce our prison populations.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded already pressing issues within the U.S. criminal justice system. Addressing existing concerns of safety, effectiveness, and funding now has a sense of immediacy and necessity. To jumpstart data-driven solutions, one criminal justice technology startup is equipping decision makers with reporting, forecasting, and goal-setting tools.

Recidiviz is a nonprofit dedicated to getting these decision makers the information they need to improve criminal justice outcomes, and quickly. The startup, based in San Francisco and born out of Google, designs criminal justice technology solutions with the ultimate goal of decreasing recidivism and incarceration rates. With funding from the Charles Koch Institute, Y Combinator, Mozilla, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Recidiviz is growing fast, supporting reform efforts across the country.

Can Criminal Justice Tech Drive Lasting Change?

The U.S. comprises less than 5% of the world’s population, but more than 20% of the world’s prison population. With 655 incarcerated individuals per 100,000 citizens, the U.S. far outpaces the second-highest rate in the world – El Salvador, which incarcerates 590 individuals per 100,000.

A large contributing factor to the inefficiencies of America’s criminal justice system is that there is a nationwide lack of uniformity when it comes to collating data. Thousands of stakeholders use different systems for tracking data, oftentimes with outdated technology.

Clementine Jacoby, the founder of Recidiviz, explains, “50 states, 18,000 police departments, 16,000 courts, and 7,000 prisons and jails… each collects its own data, resulting in thousands of different databases, and none of them talk to each other.”

These systemic communication and organizational issues not only have a negative impact on the institutions themselves, but the incarcerated individuals seeking to improve their circumstances.

Recidiviz sees these issues as ones which technology can play a vital role in solving. Jacoby describes, “(Corrections directors) don’t have the information they need to confidently chart a course forward or to see which of their efforts are or aren’t working.”

While most agencies have previously been limited to infrequent, static reports logged in Excel spreadsheets, Recidiviz has constructed a layer that sits on top of these fragmented databases to help make sense of all the information. Finally, criminal justice leaders can easily decipher and navigate through the massive amount of data available to them.

Recidiviz compiles and organizes data from national, state, and local jurisdictions so that decision makers have real-time and widespread visibility. All of this helps facilities ensure that their processes are, in fact, aligned on working toward a smaller and more rehabilitative system.

Within the Recidiviz platform, users can both measure the success of policies that have been previously implemented and forecast the impact of possible policy changes. They can evaluate which training and resource allocations have had the most success. They can also set goals for their agency, and receive alerts when they hit a goal or are off-track.

“The important thing about data,” says Jacoby, “is that it can uplevel the whole reform ecosystem, enabling every other solution to move faster, to flourish, and to see if it’s working.”

Data-Driven Decarceration

In the wake of a global pandemic, financially-strapped states were faced with a seemingly impossible dilemma – overcrowded prisons and jails. Recidiviz was able to support these agencies by providing easy access to actionable data that helped them safely decarcerate.

The company built a model that forecasted the pandemic’s potential impact to help agencies minimize harm. The model projected cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, reported current transmission rates, and helped decision makers determine best practices for slowing its spread through their facilities.

Jacoby explains, “We worked with 34 states on their COVID response and those states were able to safely release 25,000 people, which was three times the rate of states who didn’t use our model. Most people had less than six months left to serve for non-violent offenses. These early releases weren’t radical, they were data-driven.”

Recidiviz has built a platform that continuously pulls data from formerly disconnected sources and pieces it together in a single dashboard for leaders at every level of the correctional system – empowering them to make better decisions every day.

The platform holds promise to ensure that practical, purposeful, and just decisions are made. A criminal justice system which better monitors its practices, makes changes when appropriate, and prioritizes restorative justice is one that will help move America’s incarceration and recidivism rates in the right direction.

Every incarcerated individual released is another opportunity to become an asset to society, and creative, criminal justice technology solutions like Recidiviz are making more of these success stories possible.

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