A New Coalition to Lower State and Local Incarceration Rates

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Launched by the White House, the Data-Driven Justice Initiative wants to lower prison inmate numbers and increase the number of prisoners receiving health care and mental health services with proven methods.

Salt Lake County in Utah is one of 67 jurisdictions joining the White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative, a bipartisan coalition announced Thursday of state and local governments sharing best practices to reduce incarceration.

In 2007, the county launched an Integrated Justice Information System to get corrections and behavioral health services departments sharing data.

Now the jurisdiction is building out a data warehouse for its jails, sheriff, district attorney, and mayor’s criminal justice services that it wants to expand with help from its cities and Utah's government.

“By linking data across our criminal justice and health systems while protecting privacy, we can connect people to the services they need,” Ben McAdams, the county’s mayor, said during a conference call with reporters.

Those charged with crimes are held an average of 22 days behind bars with only 5 percent convicted, said White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, at great cost to taxpayers.

Such incarceration is disruptive to lives and families—leading to the loss of paychecks, jobs and housing in some cases. 

Over four years, 74 percent of the high-risk, high-needs population in Salt Lake County will be rearrested, McAdams said, but data can help judges make smarter decisions about early release.

Yet few jurisdictions are facilitating the exchange of criminal justice and health data, Jarrett said. That’s why the DDJ’s focuses include engaging local leaders on evidence-based strategies for increasing inmate access to health care, mental health services and faith-based initiatives. The White House hopes to have more than 100 jurisdictions on board by year’s end.

State and local governments spend $270 billion on criminal justice each year and $22 billion of that on incarceration, Jarrett said.

“There are people who simply do not need to be in our jails, for example, people who have committed low-level crimes because of mental illness,” she said.

Jarrett cited Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in North Carolina as a success story of reducing jail populations while connecting inmates to services and saving money. In 2014, the jurisdiction started a pre-trial release program for those deemed not a risk to the community—witnessing a 40 percent drop in the jail population and no increase in reported crimes. 

Often, inmates are now diverted to community-based care in Salt Lake County. And DDJ aims to bolster such efforts by recruiting major tech companies like Amazon and Palantir to the cause.

In some cases, partners will co-build tools, platforms, approaches and services with the jurisdictions themselves. RapidSOS, with its mobile-enabled 911 helping law enforcement more quickly locate callers, is offering its service to five participating communities for up to 10 years. Nonprofit RTI International created an open-source, calls for service tool that can track mental health hotspots over time to improve intervention.

Knox County in Tennessee is another initiative member. Its major concern being that arrestees typically only have two options: jail or emergency rooms. 

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch has spent 23 years on the force and a good part of that as a patrol officer.

“There’s almost nothing more frustrating to a police officer than seeing someone who obviously needs help, and their only options are jail or hospitals,” he said.

The issue is one of public safety because those with persistent mental illness are at a high risk to be victims. So eight years ago the city partnered with the Volunteer Ministry Center to provide housing for those deemed not a risk to the community.

By focusing on the issues of mental illness and addiction under then-mayor and now Gov. Bill Haslam, the nonprofit solution has offered services to 50,000 people.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of these problems,” Rausch said.

Instead, law enforcement is learning how to deal with mental illness and addiction cases in the line of duty.

"They’re no longer viewed as a choice,” Rausch said. "They need to be viewed as symptoms of a bigger issue.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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