The blog of the Urban Institute
September 28, 2021

Investing in Data and Technology Can Advance Local Criminal Justice Reform and Racial Equity

Our justice system disproportionately affects and harms communities of color, especially Black people. Contact with the justice system, even when brief, carries significant costs to individuals, families, and communities. Just a few days in jail can result in lost employment and housing, destabilized family relationships, and financial burdens from fines and fees.

Last summer, protests in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others at the hands of police sparked a racial reckoning with the justice system and its harmful practices, which have been compounded by the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people confined in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the United States. Community groups and local nonprofits are on the front lines responding to these injustices with advocacy and service provision, but these organizations have limited resources to effectively leverage data and technology to inform their work.

Organizations may collect data for their funders or internal purposes, but those data often sit unanalyzed and aren’t routinely updated. Further, organizations may be using outdated technology that does not meet their needs to manage everyday operations, reach clients, or collect and reflect on their program data. To address these gaps, philanthropy and local governments need to invest more in the capacity of locally embedded organizations to use data and technology in their efforts toward an equitable criminal justice system.

With data and technology, local organizations can streamline processes, identify community safety needs, improve services for those affected by criminal justice systems, and inform advocacy efforts and policy decisionmaking to advance justice reform. Efforts can range from redistributing municipal budgets toward prevention and community-based interventions to exposing entrenched racial inequities in local criminal justice systems. Organizing and collecting data—both qualitative and quantitative—can help community members understand their local contexts, organize, and advocate and monitor their efforts’ impacts. Visualizing data can also make racial inequities in the justice system more evident to a broad audience. Without the right tools and organizational capacity, data and technology will continue to be untapped resources. 

The Urban Institute and the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative have collaborated to launch the Catalyst Grant Program, one approach to building local capacity by helping organizations advance criminal justice reform and decrease racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system with data and technology strategies. Through the program, locally embedded organizations across the US will develop and implement data and technology strategies in three areas at the front end of the justice system: policing, diversion and alternatives to incarceration, and prosecution.

The program recognizes that data and technology are not enough on their own and that investments to support an organization’s data and technology infrastructure must be grounded in and coupled with community-based approaches. Organizations should center the voices of their communities and the populations they serve, listening and responding to these needs when designing programs or analyses. By combining data, technology, and local knowledge, community organizations will be better positioned to achieve their goals and advance racial equity in the criminal justice system. 


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