People Make Change (Data Helps)

By Wendy Shang posted 01-22-2018 13:59


In 2009, Google embarked on a study to answer a simple question: Does management matter? For a company that prided itself on recruiting the best and brightest, with the notion that most problems could be solved with more technically skilled bosses, the answer was surprising. After mining through performance reviews, feedback surveys, and nominations for best manager (as only Google can do), technical expertise came dead last out of eight major characteristics. Instead, skills such as communication, commitment to employees and a shared vision were paramount. 

The lessons of the algorithm giant might seem obvious, but they also have significance for stakeholders working on pretrial issues. Modern pretrial assessments (or, technically speaking, algorithms) figure significantly in discussions on moving away from money bail. Assessments offer a data-driven way to look at pretrial release and the likelihood of a person appearing for court with no new arrests. Pretrial assessments not only can increase release rates, but also reduce implicit and systemic bias in pretrial release decisions. And they work best when coupled with guidance about how to respond (not react) to the score.

The takeaway here is that a system or organization cannot thrive on data alone—even one that is literally based on algorithms. At PJI, a core organizational belief  is that “all things come from relationships.” No one has a relationship to pretrial assessments, but the relationships stakeholders have with each other -- and the relationship they have to those appearing in court before them - can influence the effectiveness of the assessment. Laying the groundwork for change and implementation is a critical part of changing pretrial practices. In New Jersey, creating support for moving away from money bail included bringing together a wide range of supporters, Governor Chris Christie, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the attorney general, the NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Latino Action Network and the ACLU, and educating stakeholders before the law went into effect. The latest statistics as November 2017 show a 36% percent drop in jail population, compared to two years before. At the same time, early outcomes seem to indicate that public safety has not been compromised.1 In Yakima County, Washington—one of three sites that participated in PJI’s Smart Pretrial initiative—judges led the way to decrease pretrial detention and its costs and improve the setting of release conditions, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, county commissioners, law enforcement and corrections. They had to have hard discussions, create a collective mission statement for change. The pretrial release rate in Yakima County subsequently increased from 53% to 73%,2 again with no change to public safety or court appearance rates.

In order for a powerful data tool like pretrial assessment to work effectively, the people who are supposed to employ the tool have to understand its purpose, validity, and limitations, be coached in how to use it, and have a system of feedback, both giving and receiving. A meta-analysis of juvenile recidivism reduction programs found that, “...a well-implemented intervention of an inherently less efficacious type can outperform a more efficacious one that is poorly implemented.”3 A transparent , validated pretrial assessment tool and response guidance, properly implemented by people with a commitment to maximizing pretrial release, gives us the best of both worlds.

PJI is committed to what is protected by the Constitution and indicated by the evidence, but at the same time, we remember what matters most is people—the people whose Constitutional rights are violated by unnecessary pretrial detention, the people who count on systems for individual and community safety, the people working for justice and well-being. Every group is comprised of individual people - like you. With that in mind, we wish you a spirited and just 2018.



1 New Jersey State Police, Uniform Crime Report, January-September 2017, generated October 13, 2017.
Claire M. B. Brooker, Yakima County, Washington Pretrial Justice System Improvements: Pre- and Post-Implementation Analysis, Pretrial Justice Institute and Justice System Partners, 2017.
3 Mark Lipsey, The Primary Factors that Characterize Effective Interventions with Juvenile Offenders: A Meta-Analytic Overview, Victims and Offenders, 4:124, 127, 2009.