The White House Has a New Data-Driven Criminal-Justice Project

This is the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at reform.

President Obama tours the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma. (Evan Vucci / AP)

NEWS BRIEF Valerie Jarrett announced the White House’s next step in its ongoing effort to bring data science to the realm of criminal justice on Thursday. The newly minted Data-Driven Justice Initiative is a coalition of 67 city, county, and state governments that have pledged to incorporate data-driven approaches into their law-enforcement programs. Participants include states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland and cities such as Albany, Denver, and Oakland.

The initiative focuses on lessening burdens on local jails. Data can help divert those suffering from mental illness away from jail and emergency rooms by helping local law enforcement and health-care providers share information. It can also reduce prison times and recidivism for non-violent offenders by predicting an individual’s risk of reoffending, and offer insights on bail by calculating a person’s risk of flight.

Jail is costly. According to the White House, 11 million people churn through local jail systems each year, costing municipalities a staggering $22 billion. There are personal costs as well. Time spent in jail waiting for a court appearance can translate into paychecks lost, rent payments missed, or time with family gone. Many of the people in America’s jails would be better served elsewhere, such as addiction-treatment programs or mental-health facilities.

The White House points to Florida by way of example:

Miami-Dade, Florida, found that 97 people with serious mental illness accounted for $13.7 million in services over 4 years, spending more than 39,000 days in either jail, emergency rooms, state hospitals, or psychiatric facilities in their county. In response, the county provided key mental-health de-escalation training to their police officers and 911 dispatchers. Over the past 5 years, Miami-Dade police have responded to nearly 50,000 calls for service for people in mental-health crises, but have made only 109 arrests, diverting more than 10,000 people to services or safely stabilizing situations without arrest. The jail population fell from over 7,000 to just over 4,700, and the county was able to close an entire jail facility, saving nearly $12 million a year.

This program will likely need time to become effective. In 2015, the White House launched the Police Data Initiative. Police departments across the country signed up to release and share their data to promote transparency and better analysis of crime patterns. The initiative got off to a halting start. One year in, 53 departments have agreed to share data. While those departments police large cities like Dallas and New York, they represent only a fraction of the nation’s 12,000 police departments.

With 67 partners already on board, the Data-Driven Justice Initiative appears to have eclipsed its predecessor program on day one.