Meeting the Moment Part 1: Mass Incarceration A Uniquely American Problem

In the first of a special five-part series, John Tilley, with special guest Tarra Simmons, shines a light on how the United States has become the global leader in mass incarceration.
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John Tilley

Head of State Engagement, Recidiviz

Tarra Simmons

Washington State Legislator and Former Inmate

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The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but incarcerates nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

We need to distinguish between people we’re afraid of and people we’re mad at when we’re deciding what prison should be for.

Evidence-based reforms and data could hold the key for helping break cycles of mass incarceration while making communities safer.

Childhood trauma and struggles with substance abuse disorder put Tarra on a path that resulted in a 30-month prison sentence.

We have a system that criminalizes poverty, behavioral health issues and addiction, with a disproportionate impact on people of color.


IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! Welcome to the TEN7 Podcast. This is the first episode of a special 5 part series called “Meeting the Moment: Using Data to Reimagine Criminal Justice” I’m your host Ivan Stegic.

This series is a partnership with Recidiviz, a nonprofit organization that is using data-driven tools to help guide change in the criminal justice system.

Last fall, I interviewed the executive director of Recidiviz, Clementine Jacoby, for an episode of our podcast, and to be honest, that discussion was so interesting it left us wanting more.

Criminal justice and mass incarceration are immense problems facing our nation, and the idea that data might hold the key to much needed reforms seemed like a topic worth a much deeper dive.

The fact is, the United States has become the global leader in mass incarceration without showing any corresponding decline in serious crime. We have a system that is massive. We have a system that is entrenched in our society. It has foundations in racism, and it has created generations of Americans who have been lost in the system.

At TEN7 we have a mission, Make Things That Matter… So exploring the issue of mass incarceration fits within our values, and we deeply appreciate the partnership of Recidiviz in making this series happen.

Over the next five weeks we’ll look at this issue from a number of different angles. We’ll look at:

  • The forces that got us into this mess
  • How government and technology might work together on reform
  • The challenges we face navigating the built-in biases of technology
  • How technology might lead us toward a change in our mass incarceration culture
  • And finally, we’ll finish looking for signs of hope, that solutions are on the horizon.

Each episode will feature an interview with a Recidiviz expert. But we also wanted to be sure to ground this entire discussion in the fact that incarceration is a human issue, and that impacts people’s lives in a profound way.

That’s why we’re going to lead off each podcast episode with the story of Tarra Simmons, a state legislator in Washington who spent time in prison and has worked hard to overcome the many obstacles that can prevent people from escaping the criminal justice system. Tarra’s voice reminds us that this issue is not just about data, it is about human lives, and it is about hope.

With that, I’d like to introduce part one of our discussion with Tarra Simmons, as she tells us about her path, and her experience in the criminal justice system.

TARRA SIMMONS: My name is Tarra Simmons, and I was actually born in Olympia, Washington, but I lived between my mother and father. My father lived in California, so I went back and forth between the two of them. So, between Washington and California is where my childhood years were.

IVAN: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

TARRA: I do. I have two brothers from my father and one sister from my mother. No full siblings, three half siblings, and they’ve all had their journeys as well. One of my brothers unfortunately is still incarcerated, has spent most of his life incarcerated in and out. My other brother, thankfully, found recovery also and has, I want to say about seven years in recovery, and he actually was just ordained a pastor in his church. Then my sister lives here locally and has found some success, has actually followed in my footsteps. Seven years ago she got her GED, and she recently graduated with her bachelor’s degree, and I’m really proud of her.

IVAN: What do your early teen years and high school years look like?

TARRA: I was up here in Bremerton, Washington where I live now for the most part during my teen years, and it was a really difficult time. I was actually in and out of homelessness and foster care. I ran away from home. I never lived with my parents again after the age of thirteen. I experienced a lot of violence and abuse living homeless on the streets, and I became pregnant at 14 years old. So I had my first son at 15, and that changed my life. I went back to high school. I had not had any high school credits, and actually completed all four years of high school in one year and graduated at 16 with a little baby.

I lived alone in my own apartment with my new son and really was just committed to giving him a better life. I was the first person in my family to ever graduate high school let alone go onto college. It was funny, when I graduated high school at 16, I really didn’t know what my plan was, but a neighbor told me about financial aid, and how I could go to college and actually receive money to do that. I was very committed to changing our generational curse of substance abuse disorder and incarceration and poverty and violence.

I went to college at 16 and started there at Olympic College, a community college here in my hometown, and graduated at 19, and then went onto the university and got my nursing degree by the time I was 21, my bachelor’s degree in nursing. And I was a registered nurse for quite some time.

IVAN: What gave you the strength to know that you needed to do four years of high school in one year? That seems remarkable for someone who is 16 and has a baby.

TARRA: I think it was just a real deep commitment to do my best to change the circumstances for my son, and I was really motivated by being in poverty. Honestly, I did not want to continue to live in poverty, and so I really just wanted to get through school so I could start earning some income and not raise my son in poverty.

IVAN: What happened after you graduated?

TARRA: After I graduated from nursing school, we lived here in Kitsap County where I live now, and I worked in a variety of nursing positions. I was finding a lot of success in my career, but I still was struggling with healthy relationships and substance use disorder off and on, just mental health trauma from my childhood.

I think what I’ve learned along the way is that adverse childhood experiences, unless you really get the opportunity to heal those, it’s going to impact your life forever. So now, reflecting back on that period of time where I might’ve been successful to other people on the outside, I was really struggling with a lot of trauma and emotional issues because of my childhood still.

IVAN: Yeah, your early years are so formative, and they set the course for your future in the most part. And it’s so hard to change that given your circumstances. Can you talk a little bit about what event occurred in your twenties that sent you on the downward spiral?

TARRA: I think it’s a culmination of events. My father dying was definitely a part of what led to me being around illegal drugs again, and pushing me into addiction to illegal drugs. I will say, when my father died, I had been trying to care for him and also work and raise my kids and it was a lot. I was already taking prescription drugs, prescribed by my doctor. And also I had an injury where I had fallen down some stairs, and so doctors were prescribing me opiates for the pain and then uppers like Adderall to give me more energy.

I was under the care of a couple of doctors who, in retrospect, were trying to help me with prescription drugs, but these prescription drugs were causing me to not make the decisions either. But when my father passed away it was a time of obviously deep grief and emotional pain, but then also my family members who were active illegal drug users started coming around to share in the grief together, and they were doing illegal drugs, and that’s where I ended up switching from my prescription drugs to illegal drugs, and that was ultimately my demise within the period of 10 months of using illegal drugs every day.

I had been arrested three different times for theft and for selling my prescription drugs to get illegal drugs.That was just a really difficult time, and I was out of control. And yes, I was arrested three times before I ended up going to prison.

The biggest charge was delivery of my Oxycodone. And so I sold to an informant a few pills. I wasn’t pushing kilos, but it’s still illegal. And that was the charge that actually sent me to prison. Then I was also charged with possession of drugs, possession with intent, unlawful possession of a firearm, because there was a gun in a rental car of mine, and then organized retail theft. I was stealing from Wal-Mart to support my habit. I got five charges all at once and ended up with a 30-month prison sentence.

IVAN: Wow. How do you feel about the informant? When you said informant it made me think like you were set up or something. How do you feel now about the situation that you were in compared to how you felt back then?

TARRA: Obviously I don’t have any resentment towards them. They were also a sick person suffering with substance use disorder, and it’s kind of the tactics that law enforcement uses to try to get to the top. They asked me when they arrested me, that basically the charges could go away if I also cooperated with them and did these control buys on someone else. This is the tactic that law enforcement uses to try to get to whoever is bringing it into the county.

I do appreciate that I had some intervention. I will say that I think that our whole system of the way we are traumatizing already traumatized people who are suffering with substance use disorder is not helpful, because I think there’s better approaches to stopping people from selling drugs and using drugs then to use these kinds of interventions from law enforcement. It’s something I’m working on now.

IVAN: We’ll hear more of Tarra’s story in the next episode, but before we jump into our main interview, I did ask Tarra for her thoughts on the issue of mass incarceration as a uniquely American problem.

TARRA: From my perspective, mass incarceration was created around the time that slavery ended, and a way to continue to have an underclass of people. And you can no longer discriminate against people based on their skin color, but you can discriminate based on a conviction record. It was trying to kind of weed out the deserving and undeserving people in our country. We’ve built this system of criminalizing everything from poverty and behavioral health issues and so much more. And, I think it’s really rooted in our country’s love for racism, and that’s evident in the disproportionality of who is involved in our legal system.

There’s been lots of things that have fueled mass incarceration. Our sentences have gotten tougher and tougher and longer and longer. We’ve passed things like mandatory minimums and three strikes you’re out. And the whole war on drugs has really contributed to mass incarceration. Now we’re trying to undo some of those things, and it is so hard to undo it after we’ve created it, because there are people that are very much believers in these policies and in this mindset that people that commit crime are inherently evil, and they deserve to be punished for the rest of their lives pretty much. It’s so hard to undo it.

And, I have to fight everyday to reeducate and to look at science and data that shows that after about 15 years, you’re not really getting any further rehabilitation. You’re not improving public safety by keeping people in cages. You’re spending a lot of money doing that. And you’re not getting the public safety benefits of those kinds of policies.

Also, people really like to talk about victims versus offenders, and these types of conversations without really understanding that every single person I met in prison was a victim first. They kind of use stories of victims to create these policies that are really overinclusive, and they legislate to the anecdote and legislate to the extreme cases, instead of looking at research and data and really thinking through what is going to create safer communities.

IVAN: Tarra’s story is one of so many that demonstrate the thin line between issues like childhood trauma, hopelessness and addiction and of course the ever present threat of mass incarceration. What can we do to try to break a cycle that has now been entrenched for generations? And how did we get to this point in our nation in the first place?

To shed some light on this, I’m pleased to be joined by John Tilley, Head of State Engagement at Recidiviz. John, before we begin our discussion, can you just give a little background about who you are and how you got involved with Recidiviz?

JOHN: Sure. Well, nearly 30 years in the field of criminal justice in some form. Prosecutor, obviously lawyer, legislator, spent almost a decade in the state legislature of the House in Kentucky. Moved to an appointment to be the Secretary of the Justice in Public Safety cabinet in Kentucky, which housed everything from corrections to the state police to public defense, and a number of things in between, including juvenile justice system.

And have spent most of that time pushing to reform the system, and to get better outcomes and to achieve a better return on investment, in being public safety generally and more just to make it a more efficient and just system, a more fair system.

IVAN: And what’s your initial reaction to Tarra’s story?

JOHN: I know Tarra, and love that she is serving in a state legislature. And she said so many things which resonated, from the idea that the vast majority of those who are serving time in prison or jail are victims themselves. That legislation is often to the extreme, like Justice Homes essentially said something more eloquently than this, But bad incidents, bad cases make bad law. And I’ve witnessed that over the near decade I was in the legislature, and certainly before and after as well. It certainly began long before my time, and it’s still going on. I witnessed it as I watched some testimony just this past month. So it continues despite knowing more than we did when it began.

I’m struck by the racial disparities. We know that the majority of people in prison are people of color. That black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated. That the sentence of a black man to a similarly situated white male is about 20% higher. So those kinds of things go on and on. I just wrote an op-ed on bail reform, The Need to End Cash Bail. The average bail for a black man is $10,000 higher than a similarly situated white man. So we know those disparities exist.

We know that, as she said that, We have criminalized poverty. There’s no question we’ve done that. That is represented in the nearly half million people we’re holding on some bond amount and in local jails, regional jails all across the country. So much of what she said is rooted in the data and rooted in the science and the evidence that we have before us.

IVAN: Mass incarceration is a major problem in the United States, and what I would love to try to trace back with you if we can, is how we got here and where are we? I know it’s bad, but how does it compare with the rest of the world, and how far back does it go? One of the things that really struck me about what Tarra said was that this has been going on since slavery. That we haven’t had this issue for 20 years, 50 years, that it goes back a long time.

JOHN: Obviously it goes back. I think what’s more instructive is to look at this explosion in the population which really began in 1980 and continues to today despite some modest declines in population. So, first of all go back to what you initially said, What do we rank in the world? What’s our place in the world?

I think this has been said so many times it bears repeating, that we comprise less than five percent of the world’s population, yet we incarcerate nearly a quarter of its prisoners, nearly 25 percent of its prisoners, and it’s worse for women.

For every three women incarcerated somewhere in the world, one of those women is sitting in a United States jail or prison cell. So nearly a third of all the world’s women prisoners are here in the U.S. That’s striking, still to me to say it this many years later. We’ve been saying it for so long, and it’s still true, even though we’ve had these modest declines, those numbers are still holding true.

You look at so many countries that we would expect the rates of incarceration to be higher and they are simply not. Again, it’s worse for women. In one state, Connecticut’s made so many strides to decarcerate, yet their incarceration rate for women, it’s one of the best in our country, but it’s higher than Russia’s. Rhode Island, the lowest female incarceration rate in our country is Rhode Island, it’s still higher than Saudi Arabia.

Those kinds of things just kind of roll off the tongue, but they stand for something that we are experiencing still over incarceration. So, for her to speak of mass incarceration, we clearly are in love with prison as a solution for better public safety, and whether you’re a conservative, a moderate or a liberal, it’s true.

And it’s been said by so many, we cannot build our way to public safety, and that’s simply not true. It wasn’t true when this explosion began, and it’s not true today, and there’s so many reasons for that. Happy to discuss them, but how did we get here, and what is here? We’re still experiencing a reliance on prison that is to me still a national tragedy.

IVAN: Well, let’s talk a little bit about what’s enabled this mass incarceration. There’s so many different things that have felt like they worked together to get us to a place where we have five percent of the population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s enabled this mass incarceration.

JOHN: I think using as a base what I referenced before, this explosion since 1980, and I think one would also be able to very easily track the explosion and drug arrests and the incredible increase in the number of drug arrests. And the idea that in roughly that same period of time I think in fact that growth rate I gave you was, let’s say from 1980 to 2008, I think. Then in 2008, I think some significant efforts at reform began across the country and in states, not federal prison reform or federal criminal justice reform, but state reform.

So, for that period of 1980 to 2008 was that massive growth, which is 500 percent by the way since that time as I may have mentioned. So, there’s a 500 percent growth rate and again an incredible rate of increase in drug arrests, and over that same time, I think drug arrests have increased 10 or 11 fold, and the number of obvious drug offenders. Again, I think the number’s actually closer to 11 fold. It’s from 40,000 to 440,000 individuals in prison for what are considered drug offenses.

Again, that also is striking. I’ve heard it said that we’ve been making these same mistakes since 1971, which some count as the beginning of what many called the war on drugs.

I’ve always been careful to not criticize. I think there’s plenty to criticize, don’t get me wrong, but I think we just see the change the way we approach the drug scourge. And certainly I’m one for favoring treatment and alternatives to incarceration when at all possible to do that.

Certainly there’s so many things that have failed us, but trying to incarcerate our way out of addiction or substance use disorder, or mental illness to use jail and prison as a way to combat those conditions.

Let’s use substance use disorder, it’s a chronic brain disorder, where relapse is just a reality and it's part of the disease. But yet we continue to punish relapse. So, how did we get here? I think we got here by criminalizing what is a disease in substance use disorder?

We got here by criminalizing mental illness, by criminalizing poverty, by allowing bad cases to make bad law. As Tarra said, by legislating to the extreme by thinking that sentence length is a deterrent. We need proportionate sentence length. She mentioned making sentences proportionate and certainly we’ve used enhancements to laws.

That’s another contributing factor, whether it be drug offenses and the aggravators that go with them, or persistent felony offender laws, habitual offender laws that are called in so many jurisdictions where these tack ons, these additional years added to sentences can be draconian and really illogical. The three strikes and you're out laws that oftentimes just bear no resemblance to reality. So, those things have all contributed. But it is clear from the data.

IVAN: We also have a decentralized fragmented system as well, don’t we? It’s not like we have one overarching policy and one overarching system. Everything is broken up into pieces.

JOHN: Again, I spent some time as a prosecutor and also when you break these down to a local, state, national level, and it’s been famously said that when you know one state, you know one state. Every state in some sense is different. States with the same criminal code, they sentence defendants, individuals differently than other parts of the state. So, there is incredible disparity. There are incredible inequities across the system.

So, yeah, that fragmentation and lack of unity and lack of standardization and lack of some sense of real equity across the board, is at play every day in our system.

For instance, there are just thousands, I think 18,000 law enforcement agencies. So, you begin to see that it’s criminal justices an inherently local problem. Not to say that the federal criminal justice reform doesn’t play an incredible role, it does, and certainly what happened with the First Step Act is a good first step, and I think those of us who’ve worked and worked on it, I worked on it and certainly was proud to play a role in it, I wished it would’ve gone further, but certainly it accomplished some things and it’s benefitted people and it’s a good first step. We now need the next steps.

But states, I’m proud that the vast majority of states have enacted some significant reforms and that state prison populations since that 2008 time have been declining. Again, albeit modestly, but at least not surging with incredible growth, like the population was before.

IVAN: What is the First Step Law?

JOHN: It’s a series of reforms, passed by Congress and signed into law in 2018, which thankfully provides some measure of reentry, provides a measure for, which is still being litigated I think, but for compassion and release under extraordinary and compelling circumstances. You know right some of the wrongs that I think existed. It’s really overall, without going into great detail, and I served on a task force proudly that provided some next steps to the First Step Act. I think for those of us who want to see additional steps, we’re also very happy to see a first step. And it matters that we have these reforms in place, it matters on so many levels.

It really identified the need in the federal prison system, the BOP, the Bureau of Prisons, that did not exist. Many states had already moved on these things and most states had most of what is in the First Step Act in place in their own states, but it obviously focused on rehabilitative programming. It did some disproportionate sentencing, it corrected some of the wrongs in disproportionate sentencing, obviously not going as far as many would’ve liked.

I think it has the ability, and has done some real good. Again, earn time credit opportunities exist and so many things. It produces and clarifies some mandatory minimums. All of these things that many on the right, and the middle and the left have been talking about some time. It was good to see some measure of reform at that level. I think we have some hope that will continue.

IVAN: So decentralized system, local versus state versus federal politics, good First Step Law that’s the first step to improving our mass incarceration problem. But it feels like politicians that get elected have an incentive to continue to be in representative office, and it’s easy to be tough on crime.

And similarly, judges that are elected in states and local governments across the nation, also it’s easy for them to be tough on crime, whatever that means. Do you think that’s also enabled mass incarceration? Is it hard for a politician to say, No, let’s do something that is more humane as opposed to just a law that keeps people in prison?

JOHN: The short answer is yes, it does make it more difficult when we elect judges and we elect the policymakers who vote on criminal justice laws in this country, and it certainly is the safer route in many ways. It doesn’t make it the right route. It certainly doesn’t say good things about our system, because ultimately, we should all be trying to do what’s right and what actually does benefit and enhance public safety.

It is possible to be smart on crime but remain tough on criminals. And again, we want to make sure we define that appropriately, because in certainly my opinion and the opinion of many others, we incarcerate far too many low-level offenders whether those are drug offenders or not, who should not be incarcerated in jail or prison, and we keep too many people pretrial as we’ve been discussing. So, got to be careful there.

But I think just having served and having served with some really good colleagues who didn’t come from the criminal justice background, they weren’t lawyers, didn’t work in the system, didn’t have any experience in it. I’ll tell you when they began to understand it though. I think it’s clearly easier to always, whether you’re an elected judge or elected official, it’s always easier to vote for that tough on crime policy as opposed to that reformative measure.

Because let’s say out of a thousand successes, one bad thing happens. One individual released, whether it’s early or not, reform is always blamed for whatever crime occurs, whatever serious crime occurs in that community, if it’s tied in anyway, if it’s even timewise, if it happened in the same time period, the reform measures become oftentimes the target of criticism and the target of backlash in the media.

So, whether you’re serving the state house or state senate or you’re a governor, you vote on these things, you’ve got to be prepared to explain to your constituents why. In my personal experience, I was pushing significant reform, bold reform each and every session I was chair of my House Judiciary Committee, and I was able to explain to my constituents why, and I think it resonated with the people.

One example is the drug epidemic. Everyone knows somebody who had a substance use disorder and nearly everyone does, and nearly everyone also knows someone who was ensnared in the criminal justice system because of it. And that began to affect people in such record numbers, in such dramatic numbers.

So, the opioid epidemic for one, we all know, we’re still facing an epidemic within a pandemic right now with the opioid epidemic, and we could talk about that all day long. I mean overdose deaths are ticking back up now, it’s clear, and that kind of substance use disorder is still an epidemic.

I think there began to be an understanding in communities and in constituencies that if you frame it in that way, I think that was one of the openings, that we know that drug arrests are up, and we know that continuing to fight the drug war in the same way, now we need to battle this epidemic. But to fight the same traditional drug war under the guise that we can just lock everyone up and problem solved, it’s just an absolute fallacy and people began to realize that.

So, alternative approaches became accepted, and so, states began to modernize drug codes, began to look at possession differently than trafficking of course. Those are just two examples, but again, to look at a number of things differently, there was significant reform, began to increase felony threshold levels. In other words, the value of something before you would be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor crime. Those were popular reforms, and the list goes on. But, generally still, for bold reform, most legislators are not willing to go as far as many see necessary, and I’m one of those that thinks we need to go further and be bolder in our approach. You heard the numbers when we began our interview, we’re still not there.

IVAN: What should our goal be? Over what kind of timeframe? How will we know when we’re there?

JOHN: It’s difficult to point to a number. I think we’ll know when we’re close, and I think we are seeing modest declines. A lot of the declines we’ve seen over the past year have been due to COVID and backed up court dockets. Sadly, I think the dam will eventually break, and you’ll see populations go back up from some of these declines of the past few months. But generally still, we’ve seen modest declines. Again, it’s always difficult when I’m talking to a group, whether I was an elected officer, appointed office in executive branch to say to those wanting to know more, we live in a country that values liberty and our freedom, and we’ve seen that. That’s a battle cry.

But we also live in a country which values prison and takes away liberty for things that it shouldn’t, in my opinion, and again, the opinion of many others. I think the numbers bear that out. So, when we get to a point where we as a country that values freedom and liberty as we do and as we rightly do, under our Constitution, when we get to a point where we’re no longer the world leader in incarceration, and we’re closer to an average or below that average, and we’re closer to understanding that the people serving in prison we’re afraid of rather than simply mad at. So we need to distinguish, I think that cannot be said enough. That quote has been attributed to me and it’s not. It did not come from me, but it was one that resonated with people, that we need to distinguish who we’re mad at and who we’re afraid of.

Prison exists for a reason, but it shouldn’t exist for all reasons, and it really should be relegated to housing our most serious offenders. Those prison beds need to be reserved for those who need to be segregated from society. I think we can find alternatives and we have found a number of alternatives for others that are far more beneficial and provide far more public safety, by the way, for our communities.

IVAN: One of the things that Tarra said is that every single person she met in prison was a victim first. And getting people to really talk about the fact that these offenders were victims first, and that really stuck out to me. I wonder, given the fact that we have the highest mass incarceration numbers in the world, we have mentioned and talked about how those incarceration numbers are modestly going down, what’s stopping us from reducing these numbers? What is standing in the way of reform? It feels like there’s so many things working against us.

JOHN: I think, going back to what we touched on a moment ago, finding the political will, finding that in our elected officials or at least demanding it from our elected officials that they follow the evidence, they vote on best policies and best practices as opposed to anecdotal extremes, as Tarra mentioned, legislating based on what we know to be true rather than our gut or just again sensational stories.

IVAN: Data, real data is what you’re talking about.

JOHN: Absolutely. Perish the thought that we actually rely on data. It always strikes me that none of us would want to ever fly an airplane with pilots who used weather data from the previous month or relied on incoming information that was stale or old or not credible or inaccurate.

But that’s what we do in criminal justice. We take people's liberty over it, and we base our policy decisions on it, and we use programs oftentimes that we think work, we’re not sure. That’s gotten better, certainly we validated a number of things in criminal justice.

For instance, a lot of the legislation that I sponsored and passed required that we used evidence-based programming, which means programs the latest studies indicate will actually work to meet their ultimate stated objectives. That’s a good thing. But we still have a system where our policymakers and our practitioners, those who rely on information and who I think by and large the good news is we’ve gotten to a point where people want more information. Some still don’t, but more do, but yet we don’t have that real time data that feeds into those decisions which could be made by practitioners on a daily basis.

So, take a parole officer, speaking of the overworked and underpaid and the underappreciated, a parole officer in the field trying to help an individual re-enter society with stable housing and transportation and substance use disorder treatment, or mental illness treatment, and finding employment. And oh by the way trying to track a hundred of these people for one individual is the norm. That’s not unheard of.

The caseloads could be as high as a hundred people. They were in my state. We were certainly a justice over corrections and corrections housed probation and parole, and the average caseload for one of ours was like 95 cases. So they’re trying to track each individual, by the way, making roughly $35,000 a year, and dealing with people who are suffering from all of these conditions trying to reenter society simply trying to get back on their feet and reintegrate. And can you imagine then having no information, no real time feedback as to what’s going or what’s working.

But if we could use data and the power of these systems to provide alerts and information, right on a cell phone, just real time, whether someone is actually eligible for an expedited release due to good behavior, or by the way they’ve fallen out of treatment and they need help or there are job interviews that are available connecting them to that, or stable housing has become available, just any number of things. Or just oh by the way, cognitive behavioral therapy is now available, or by the way they missed a class, just that follow-up. We know that just that constant follow-up works.

IVAN: So, the fragmented nature of the state, local, federal governments and courthouses and systems that we have in place means that the data is fragmented, and that it’s in all these different places. Which means that people who are on the ground, who are parole officers, who are in charge of prisons they don’t’ have all the data in one place and aren’t able to make good decisions based on that data. It sounds like we have a problem that needs a holistic approach, that needs to be overhauled from a strategic level as opposed to a logistical level.

JOHN: Oh, I think so. I think we need data across the country to be normalized. In other words, it needs to be transferred into a common extensible platform, where it can again be used in a way that is by the way digestible, is consumable, it’s understandable. It doesn’t come in a ream of this huge spreadsheet that’s miles long and hard to digest. Those who would want to know about a particular policy, we can’t expect our legislators, and again I can be critical, but I can also certainly be supportive and defensive of how difficult the job can be. You’re trying to keep track of hundreds of issues.

And so when we try to boil down an issue in criminal justice to a policymaker, we better be able to do it in a one page format and provide them the data quickly and succinctly. And we can do that now. I didn’t have that when I was a legislator. I had some historical data. I was looking backward. This gives us a chance to look forward through our windshield, as opposed to back through our rearview mirror and out the back of the vehicle. So that’s significant.

To me it’s a game changer in so many ways. The parole officer was one example, but the leaders in corrections, a governor, a legislator, a judge, a law enforcement official, a police officer on the street, anybody who could access the data to see real time feedback on how things are working, to me that is a real game changer, and again something that I didn’t have, and I just left justice at the end of 2019.

IVAN: Do you think we have reform fatigue? It feels like maybe that’s stopping us as well to a certain extent.

JOHN: Absolutely. It’s been said so many times. I know it was said in my state and I gotta tell you, I was offended by it, and I’ll tell you why. All of us who ran for office were elected, and we took an oath to serve, and to then look at your constituents and say, I’m tired, that’s actually what that is. It’s just I’m tired. Well, are you tired, so you’re going to quit on it? Just so we passed education reform a number of years ago, are we going to stop passing good measures to help educate our children and others in higher ed?

Are we going to stop transportation fatigue? I mean, it seems to me, I know that a number of legislators, just not in my state but across the country said, Hey, we took a shot at this justice reinvestment thing, and you know we’ve, we’ve done it now, and I took my tough vote, and I’m through. And it was simply a way to push it along to maybe the next generation of legislators. It was a way to kick that can just a little bit further. It just always struck me as really irresponsible. If you tell me you don’t agree I can actually respect that, I just don’t agree with it. I had a number of people tell me that. I think they’re wrong, but I can respect that as opposed to giving me some kind of reason that sounds like I’m tired.

IVAN: Why do you keep working on this?

JOHN: It comes from an internal, I think, fire that just continues to burn. I remember the first time that I was a young prosecutor and worked in the system. I defended cases as well and always considered myself fairly balanced in my approach and never forgot the words of a mentor when I began prosecuting that said, It’s not about what you can do, but it’s about what you should do. And I always took a lot of pride in that. But I can remember going to a legislative conference, my first, and hearing for the first time that we led the world in incarceration. So those very numbers we just discussed were put to me, and I was flabbergasted.

I didn’t have any appreciation for where we ranked as a country, or for that matter as a state, my state at that time Kentucky. Never understood that and frankly it embarrassed me, it angered me, it saddened me, it embarrassed me for my state at the time, we’ve actually done a good job to relinquish the world leader in prison growth as a state, but as a country we’re still grappling with it. My state could still do more, I don’t mean we’ve reached some level of satisfaction, I don’t mean that at all, but we’re no longer that embarrassment that I thought we were in terms of prison growth. But all those emotions bubbled up in me and I was, like many of us, who had parents who said wise things, I’ll never forget my father saying to me, When you see an injustice, there are two ways to approach it. Some people walk away, and some people work on it, work to fix it, work to address it and clear it.

And I’ve never forgotten that. I think it has to do with empathy as well. Empathy is something we’ve talked a lot about as a country, but I think we have to empathize with those who are ensnared in the system. A nd obviously whatever response the criminal justice system should make, should be appropriate and reasonable, and it should produce the best outcome. I don’t think we’re close to that yet.

IVAN: What are you hopeful about then?

JOHN: I’m hopeful that we’re talking about it. We weren’t talking about this years ago. Again, being a prosecutor and not knowing any of what I know now to me is troubling. I think oftentimes really good people, really good colleagues of mine who defend cases, who prosecute these cases, who work in the system, who are judges, who work in criminal justice, they still may not have an appreciation for exactly where we are, but they certainly, many more do now than did let’s say 15 years ago. That’s without question. So the fact that we’re talking about it, and the fact that most states have made progress and have enacted reform, significant reforms, landmark reforms. And the fact that we’ve seen a modest decline, I’m hopeful about all of those things. And I’m hopeful that it feels as if, even though reform fatigue exists, it feels as if there is still momentum. It feels as if there’s momentum at the federal level and state and local levels for reform at all levels of the criminal justice system.

There’s a movement to accept treatment as the default response to addiction rather than prison or jail. And that those who are suffering from mental illness need treatment and compassion and understanding as opposed to a jail cell. It feels like we’re talking about those things more than we ever have, and that’s really hopeful, and that’s actually what drives us.

Finally, I’ll say I find myself at 52 still burning pretty brightly for reform, but I’m also really taken by the number of people younger than me who in their twenties and thirties, who are finding that this is their calling in life. And they’re going into what I consider areas of public service, whether it be work for a nonprofit, or work in the public sector, working in the criminal justice space directly, or working beside it, or with it in the same sphere. I think that’s really promising and hopeful for the future, that so many young people I work with are recognizing that this exists, and they want to address this injustice.

IVAN: What advice can you give to them to bring about change? Something more than just working in the sector. Is there sage advice that you can give them?

JOHN: I think it’s a civic duty to be involved. I think obviously it begins with listening to those we elect. I think the policies are set at that level and that means in all elections, not just state or federal. I think at all levels it's important. Certainly, some positions impact criminal justice more than others, but I think it's important to listen.

Not everyone can work directly in the field clearly. That’s not possible, but there are so many ways to volunteer. There’s so much need. I think about the children impacted by incarceration by the hundreds of thousands of children impacted there are things to do to support them and to break cycles of incarceration within communities and families.

Tarra talked about victimization and she’s right. When I visited our women’s facilities here in my state and I visited them across the country I’m always struck by the stories from people in prison generally, but even more so with women in prison the level of emotional and physical and sexual abuse sadly.

So, they can get involved in supporting shelters and crisis centers and homeless shelters and working to do any number of things that can serve as a response to what are society’s problems, and not just the problems of the criminal justice system.

By the way that’s something I haven’t said, but for those who work in the system, we’ve forced those all the way from law enforcement to judges to jailers and corrections officials and policymakers. The criminal justice system has become the default for mental illness and substance use disorder and now we’ve begun to rectify that.

What I’m saying is not to blame anyone working in the system. The system has been asked to handle the things it was never designed to handle and to try to resolve and that’s one of the problems. There’s so much to this ongoing debate. So, to the advice of someone trying to get involved, that understanding is necessary and then finding a way to get back and contribute. I think if we all do that, I think we can begin to see tremendous progress.

IVAN: Our series will continue next week when we’ll hear more from Tarra Simmons, and we’ll speak with Andrew Warren, the Head of Product at Recidiviz.

Among the topics we’ll discuss is how government has failed to use data to make a meaningful difference in keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Here’s some of what Andrew had to say:

ANDREW WARREN: I think what we really need is a focus on outcomes, not on processes and not on operations. If every agency focuses right now on, are we fulfilling the number of contacts that we’re required to when folks are on supervision? Am I checking the box on the set of programming I was required to give this person, etc. But they’re not seeing the outcome metrics, and they’re not creating a feedback loop to those metrics, then all we’re doing is kind of the system serves itself, it doesn’t serve the people for a part of it.

If the criminal justice system could cross all of those different silos of the courts and the police and the corrections and supervision folks and get data in one place that allowed them to see what was the end-to-end outcome for the people, then I think you’d see a lot more focus on getting folks IDs as soon as they get out of prison.

Getting folks the resources that they need to get set back up in a society that they left twenty, thirty years ago before there were even smartphones. There’s just not that much focus on the human side of the issue because no one’s looking at the outcomes a lot of the time.

IVAN: Join us next time for the second episode of our series, Meeting the Moment: Using Data to Reimagine Criminal Justice. We hope you’ll subscribe! You can find out more online at Thank you for listening.


This is Episode 114 of The TEN7 Podcast. It was recorded on Month 17, 2021 and first published on April 14, 2021. Podcast length is 53 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumacas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.

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