Connecting state and local government leaders
New York’s sweeping 2020 law sought to accelerate pre-trial processes with technology upgrades. But the state’s experience offers lessons for other jurisdictions undertaking similar efforts to modernize the justice system.
Before state and local agencies can plan for and implement jail systems reforms, they need better data and technology infrastructure. At least that’s the takeaway from the implementation of New York’s sweeping criminal justice reform law.
Designed to shorten pre-trial jail stays by defendants and make it easier for them to prepare a defense, the 2020 law accelerated the timeline for data sharing between law enforcement, the prosecution and defense. Meeting the law’s requirement for digital evidence sharing, or e-discovery, was manageable for localities that already had robust case management infrastructures in place. But those without such systems were left scrambling.
Prior to the reforms, many New York counties “exchanged hard copies of evidence and materials; security camera footage was often stored on flash drives or CDs, witness statements obtained by the police were often transcribed, printed, and delivered to DA’s offices, and police officer memo books were often photocopied and hand delivered,” according to a report released last month by the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance.
Those counties faced a myriad of challenges, including requesting funding, creating new information technology infrastructure, piloting a new system and managing an increase in data volume. They also faced a steep learning curve as well as staff and resource constraints. The counties reported feeling like they were “building the plane as they were flying it,” the report said.
“Overall, the takeaway from conversations with DA’s offices was that without a technology infrastructure already in place, the scope and volume of change that had to be implemented in order to comply was simply too much to do in a sustainable manner within the timeframe that offices had to plan,” according to the report.
“There are a lot of issues in terms of preparing for these kinds of changes, where you need to project how this is really going to impact the system,” said Jennifer Ferone, deputy research director at the Institute for State and Local Governance and lead author of the report. “To do that, you need data, and you need to be data-driven so that you can really make informed decisions about how you plan for those types of changes, how you implement them and [how] … you can monitor the changes once they are in effect.”
The challenges New York experienced are playing out in other jurisdictions nationwide, said Rachael Eisenberg, managing director of rights and justice at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive advocacy organization.
“Communities across the country are at varying stages in terms of their technological development and data capacity as it relates to criminal justice reform,” she said. “Generally speaking, there are lots of gaps in government’s ability to have the data that it needs to make the very complex decisions about systems change.”
Reasons for these gaps include aging IT infrastructure, a lack of staff in general or a lack of staff with sufficient technological know-how and resource constraints. None has a quick fix. It can take a tremendous amount of time to modernize a data management system, Eisenberg said.
Data also tends to be scattered in silos, such as in police or court systems. “Working with multiple systems that are different and that need to be integrated effectively can be challenging,” she said. “Drawing the data that you need out of those systems is complicated, time intensive and requires the support of a staff to do that.”
A large goal of New York’s criminal justice reforms is to reduce the reliance on pre-trial incarceration so that individuals can remain in the community, said Ferone, lead author of the report. “It’s better to stay in the community—if it’s safe to do so—while they’re waiting for that resolution of their case.”
It’s also more equitable, particularly when it comes to posting cash bail payments. “It’s no question that there are significant racial and economic disparities in terms of who is being arrested and funneled through the criminal legal system, so nationally we’re seeing more and more efforts around bail,” she added.
In July, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill that advanced public safety and criminal justice reform there. In June, the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice in New Jersey issued a report reviewing previous reforms and recommending new ones.
As these reforms gain traction, Eisenberg said, best practices are emerging. As New York now knows, one essential step is assessing data and the current tech infrastructure before embarking on a modernization project.
Additionally, engaging practitioners early in the process will help ensure that those doing the work understand the various departments’ pain points and the logistical and operational challenges of new systems. And establishing a way to measure progress is important in ensuring goals are being met.
“Without the technological backing and staffing and resourcing to use the data when it is available, I think there are a lot of challenges that states and localities will face [in implementing criminal justice reforms],” Eisenberg said.