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Why this Google product manager left to work on criminal justice reform

Recidiviz, the only nonprofit in the current cohort at the tech accelerator Y Combinator, is using data analytics to determine the best strategies to reduce incarceration.

Why this Google product manager left to work on criminal justice reform
[Photo: karenfoleyphotography/iStock]

As a product manager at Google working on Google Maps, Clementine Jacoby started thinking about how the analytics tools she used to build products could be applied to a completely different problem—helping state criminal justice agencies reduce incarceration.

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Right now, state agencies can’t easily evaluate the impact of various policies and programs, such as whether a particular education program in a prison helps someone have a better chance of getting a job when they leave or helps lowers recidivism rates. Six months ago, Jacoby cofounded a new nonprofit called Recidiviz to try to give agencies information about which solutions actually work (she left Google to work on it full-time in June). “At Google, we had experimentation frameworks to determine which version of a change would have the greatest impact, and when we rolled out a change, we could predict what it should do and monitor if it actually hit that goal,” she says. “In the criminal justice system today—an incredibly large and important and impactful system—we have none of those same abilities. It’s millions of lives, billions of dollars, and we don’t have a good sense of what’s working or a good way to set goals and hit them.”

According to a 2019 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 2.2 million people were behind bars in prisons and jails at the end of 2017. The number has been dropping over time—over the past decade, incarceration rates fell by more than 10%. But it’s still the largest number of incarcerated people of any country in the world, and there’s broad support to find better solutions. As the nonprofit launched, it immediately began working with its first state; it’s now working with five. “The people who are actually running criminal justice systems are already motivated to decarcerate for a whole variety of reasons,” Jacoby says. “Either their system may be overcrowded, and they don’t know exactly what the best strategies are to get a handle on that, or they’re getting legislative pressure and advocacy pressure to downsize.”

[Photo: karenfoleyphotography/iStock]

A large amount of criminal justice data exists, but it’s difficult for decision-makers to access. Researchers on staff may spend their time producing a single annual report. Jacoby says that the startup talked with one state that had 90 programs but only had the capacity to evaluate three in a year. “So in 30 years, we’ll know what was working in 2019,” she says. “They have the data, they know the questions they want answered, they just don’t have the capacity to answer their questions in any routine or deep way—and that’s exactly the place where tech can help.” Many tech companies do already work in the system, “but you can make a lot of money as a for-profit tech company without decarcerating at all,” she says. “The incentives in this space are not generally aligned.” That’s one reason the startup decided to launch as a nonprofit.

When Recidiviz first begins working with a state, they hold a design sprint with the state corrections department, learning what information the team has now, what they want to have, and how new data would help them make decisions differently. The startup also shadows parole officers and learns more about how they currently make decisions. Then it helps set up an automated process that pulls in data daily from various sources and presents clear reports about what’s working or not working. Though Jacoby couldn’t yet share results, she says that they’re already finding insights; a next step is to better understand how programs work together (a program to help a parolee get addiction treatment without support to find housing may not be as successful, for example). The data analysis also looks at how specific populations are helped by each program, so that programs can be better tailored. Ultimately, she hopes that as states begin to reduce incarceration rates, they can invest the money that they were spending on prisoners on successful rehabilitation programs instead. “You can actually start to shift the system from punitive to rehabilitative,” she says.

The startup is now the only nonprofit in the current cohort at the tech accelerator Y Combinator. It’s now working to expand to more states and wants to share the technology broadly. “Everything that we build is open-source. And so part of the theory of change is, can we get this technology out there, so that domain experts in the space can use this infrastructure to support states in doing data-driven decision-making?” says Jacoby. “There are lots of people out there who focus on a particular set of decisions being made in the criminal justice system. And we need to find a way to empower those people to scale what they’re doing.”


Correction: We’ve updated the title of this article to reflect Jacoby’s title at Google.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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