Tumml recently hosted a roundtable on “Criminal Justice Reform & Tech” in partnership with Verizon, Microsoft, and Nixon Peabody. The discussion brought together entrepreneurs, nonprofit administrators, legal experts, and philanthropic leaders. Our goal was to answer the question, “What is it like to build effective tools that support criminal justice reform – and get someone to buy them?” Specifically, we talked through strategies and pitfalls for delivering technology solutions to improve the criminal justice process and its outcomes.

Our participants identified a number of best practices and opportunities where technology can play a role in supporting meaningful, positive change in the criminal justice space.

Start with small, discrete projects
The technologies that have made the most notable impact in the space are often focused, discrete projects that help bridge the gap between the promise of a law and that law’s actual implementation on the ground. A good example is Clear My Record, a free, nonprofit service for people with a criminal record in select California counties. This website provides tactical support to the Clean Slate initiatives rolling out in California to help certain individuals with nonviolent criminal histories to expunge their records – reducing the hurdles to employment opportunities, housing, etc. The website provides an important service, as the state has not yet been able to implement an automatic record-clearing process (so individuals currently need to initiate the process themselves).

Other possible interventions suggested by event participants include the idea of creating a tool to help individuals get one free background check a year (as one can already do with a credit score), so that they could monitor their own records and redress issues if they were to arise. These technology tools do not necessarily have to function as a standalone business, but could perhaps function as the offshoot of another business, or perhaps a nonprofit.

Work with community partners
Participants emphasized repeatedly that those creating tech solutions need to work with community advocates in the space. This is a very resource-constrained environment, and so it is important that people looking to help target their efforts to the most important issues – which they can best identify by engaging with community partners and constituents. At the same time, it is important to understand that these individuals may be very busy (“chronically and critically understaffed,” as one participant put it). For example, public defenders could certainly benefit from access to technology tools, but they are also frequently overwhelmed, managing three or four thousand cases per person, in some cases!

Re-shape the data story
In the criminal justice space, data is most often used to identify immediate risk, and the data taken into account is mostly negative (arrests, violations, debts, etc). This information does not capture the entire picture and rarely takes into account the bigger, longer-term risks. For example, keeping someone in jail until their trial might cause them to lose their job, children, etc. – and might ultimately drive them towards other negative life choices. Generally, fines and fees represent adverse consequences when people cannot pay them. The participants noted that new technologies that could help capture more data – and perhaps draw a more holistic picture of an individual – could refine how district attorneys and judges make decisions.

Technology by itself is not going to overhaul the criminal justice system. But targeted initiatives, launched with the support of community partners, and using/delivering the right data can be effective steps in the right direction.

Photo credit: Ben Sutherland, Flickr Creative Commons