Meeting the Moment Part 5: Hopeful Signs For Decarceration and Social Justice
In the last episode of a special five-part series, Terin Patel-Wilson, with special guest Tarra Simmons, talks about signs of hope and how the United States might finally be ready to seriously address criminal justice reform.
Terin Patel-Wilson, Project Manager at Recidiviz
Tarra Simmons, Washington State legislator who spent time in prison
From Terin Patel-Wilson:
- Social movements, including Black Lives Matter, are moving the needle around criminal justice reform and the need to address racial equity.
- Data shows that some policies are increasing incarceration with no impact on public safety and crime, such as technical parole violations that send people back to prison.
- COVID prompted many states to move quickly to decarcerate people, offering a chance to see the impact and hopefully build on those efforts going forward.
From Tarra Simmons:
- People who are incarcerated need to hold on to hope and purpose, understanding they have advocates and there is a possibility for change.
- She also advises those who are serving time to make a plan for when they get home, putting a support system in place to avoid pitfalls that may send them back to prison.
- Meeting the Moment: Using Data to Reimagine Criminal Justice
- Make Things That Matter
- Public Defender Association
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! Welcome to the TEN7 Podcast and the fifth and final episode of our special series called “Meeting the Moment: Using Data to Reimagine Criminal Justice”
I’m your host Ivan Stegic.
As we wrap up this series, I want to express my gratitude to our partner icn this project, Recidiviz, a nonprofit organization that is using data-driven tools to help guide change in the criminal justice system. They have been so great to work with as we have explored this complex but important topic.
Our mission at TEN7 is to “Make Things That Matter,” so taking on criminal justice reform and looking at how data might help bring about needed change fits squarely into that goal.
In each episode we have interviewed a Recidiviz expert, exploring different issues related to the criminal justice system.
Our past episodes have explored why the United States is the global leader in mass incarceration, how government and technology might work more closely together to bring about needed change, how racism and bias in the data we gather may be a barrier to effective reform, and how human centered design might offer hope for more effective solutions to these problems.
In this episode, we’re going to leave you with signs of hope. The United States may be at a turning point, with bipartisan support for some elements of criminal justice reform. We’ve also just seen a wave of decarceration due to COVID concerns that may actually pave the way for future efforts to reduce our prison populations.
We’ll examine these ideas in a moment, but first, I want to revisit the story of Tarra Simmons, a recently elected state legislator in Washington who spent time in prison and who is using that experience now to try to reform the system and help others break free of the cycle of incarceration.
Through each of our episodes Tarra has given us unique perspective about the criminal justice system.
Tarra’s voice has served as a reminder that criminal justice is not about numbers, it’s about human lives. It’s about hope.
Here are some of the highlights of Tarra’s story and the lessons we can learn from her experiences, starting with the events that led to her time in prison.
TARRA SIMMONS: The biggest charge was delivery of my Oxycodone and so I sold to an informant a few pills. I wasn’t pushing kilos, [laughing] 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.
It was actually something before I was ever arrested, I knew that I was struggling with substance use disorder, but I didn’t know where to go to get help. I was really afraid that if I told my providers that they would turn me into the nursing board, and I would lose my nursing license. I didn’t know where I could go without also getting negative consequences, and that’s part of the problem is that we stigmatize substance use disorder in such a way that it is illegal and that there is negative consequences, and it affects other areas of your life such as losing your children or losing your professional license or something like that.
If I could’ve went to the police and said, “Here’s my drugs. I need help and hope, not handcuffs,” [laughing] I think that would be really great.
I went to work release four months before I left prison, so I still count that as part of my period of incarceration but it’s like a half-way house where you can actually go in the daytime and look for work and things like that. So I ended up getting a job at a fast food restaurant.
But what I really wish I would’ve had when I left prison was not a criminal record [laughing] that continues to haunt me to this day, because it kind of kept me out of qualified jobs that I could’ve done that made a lot more money. So basically the criminal record itself is kind of a punishment to lifelong poverty. That’s what I really wish I would’ve had, is not a criminal record. You’ve done your time and it’s hard to survive after that.
The person who ended up representing me in the State Supreme Court was none other than Shon Hopwood, who had become a lawyer in Washington State after robbing five banks at gunpoint and serving 12 years in federal prison. So the irony of that alone [laughing] was kind of amusing, and of course he did amazing advocacy on my behalf.
Something happened that day that never happens. Usually it takes the Supreme Court four or five months at least to issue an opinion and we left the courthouse that day on November 16, 2017 and we thought, We might hear back in April, and came home and within hours the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision allowing me to take the Bar exam. So it was pretty special.
Formerly incarcerated people are an identity that needs to have representation also, and we face so many challenges from early childhood through educational systems through healthcare systems, and obviously the criminal justice system, but our voices are never really centered in these discussions about how we’re going to improve systems.
I did it for a lot of reasons. I also did it because I love my community here and I want to make sure everybody has a first chance, so they don’t need a second chance later on in life.
IVAN: Tarra’s path from prison to being a public servant and a leader in her community is inspiring and it gives her unique perspective on how difficult it can be to break free of the criminal justice system.
As a final thought from Tarra, I asked her what advice she would give to people who are incarcerated right now.
TARRA: I would just say do not give up hope, because laws change. You have people that are advocating for all kinds of opportunities to have resentencing. I don’t care how long you’ve been sentenced to, don’t give up hope. Continue to find a purpose even if you’re incarcerated around mentoring or supporting others who may have a sooner release date than you because they are people advocating for you as well.
Then, make sure you have a plan for when you come home, a really thought out plan about who are you going to call at two AM when you wake up with a nightmare around maybe some abuse that you endured while you’re incarcerated, or how are you going to maintain your sobriety. How are you going to survive financially? Be thinking about all those things so you can be well prepared when you come home and not ever go back.
IVAN: I want to offer my sincere thanks to Tarra for being willing to share her story and for the important work she’s doing now in the state legislature in Washington, working for criminal justice reform.
In many ways the issues around criminal justice seem so immense it’s easy to get discouraged and to feel like nothing will ever really change. Thankfully, that is not the case. In recent years we’ve actually been making progress and the momentum for reform may be building.
To delve into the current trends and possibilities, I’m pleased to welcome Terin Patel-Wilson, a product manager at Recidiviz.
Terin, can you tell me a little about yourself and your role with Recidiviz?
TERIN PATEL-WILSON: It’s great to be here so thank you for having me. Like you said, I’m Terin, I am a Product Manager at Recidiviz. We’re a technical nonprofit that works with state governments to help identify ways to reduce the size of criminal justice in that state in a way that’s equitable and sustainable. Particularly I have recently been working on some of our policy impact modeling, projecting what the impacts of different types of reforms might be.
I’m originally from North Carolina, the suburbs of Charlotte near Davidson College. I went to Yale where I studied computer science. Learned a lot of different things at this point, sort of was a little bit of my intro into Criminal Justice but after I graduated, I moved to the Bay area where I worked at Google for a number of years and then for the last two years, I’ve been at Recidiviz.
It was a bit of a windy journey to get to Recidiviz, but I started as an engineer and worked on a lot of our initial platform developments that we’ve done and then the last couple of months I have been working as a Product Manager working on some of our policy work that I’m happy to dive into as well.
IVAN: What exactly is your role as a Product Manager?
TERIN: So a Product Manager is a bit of an amorphous role. It is generally like we’re supposed to be advocates for the users within our company and so we work a lot with engineers, work a lot with designers, to build the projects that most serve the folks that we’re working with.
The product that I have been working most closely with recently is, like I mentioned, reducing some impact projection of different policies. So, essentially, lawmakers, advocates, state governments, when they have a policy that they’re interested in when it’s related to Criminal Justice and they don’t have good data on what are the projected impacts of this policy, we have a team that helps them understand that and can create sort of these one pagers that summarizes what the impacts might be.
IVAN: So, you’re trying to look at whether or not a policy has been effective and how?
TERIN: It’s a lot of projection. It’s a lot of forward looking things. Essentially the idea is like advocates, lawmakers, folks within state governments work really, really hard to get legislation passed and go through the legislative process that do incredible types of reforms, and something that is sometimes missing is an understanding of what are the potential impacts of this policy in five years. How many people will we let out of prison? How many people will be off of probation because of this? How will it affect racial equity? What are the fiscal impacts of this?
So, basically, when that type of analysis doesn’t already exist for a piece of legislation we try and provide it using where our data science team has created a fantastic model that uses public data to help do that. So, basically the goal is to have decision-makers, folks that are looking at these policies and voting on them in deciding what types of things to implement, to have them have as much information as possible when they’re making those decisions.
IVAN: So, they have information and hard data and projected analyses that maybe they wouldn’t have had in the past so that they can make solid decisions for the policies that they’re trying to implement.
TERIN: Yup, that’s a good summary.
IVAN: Great. Well, we’ve talked a great deal in this series about how we lead the world in numbers in terms of mass incarceration. And in our first episode Tilley talks about how we are less than 5% of the world’s population but we actually incarcerate over twenty-five percent of prisoners in the world, and that that number is even worse for women.
Those don’t sound like amazing statistics, but I want to try to talk about why we should be hopeful. Because even though the numbers are bad, there’s been some progress and since the height of the numbers between 2007 and 2010 we’ve made some progress in a few areas and I know that you know a great deal about this progress. One of the things that I think we should talk about is bi-partisanship, something we see so rarely in DC, seems to exist within the criminal justice system. Tell me about that.
TERIN: Absolutely. The large stats around exactly how great of a problem this is and how uniquely American in some ways, mass incarceration is, are staggering, and that was my first intro to criminal justice as well. There are definitely some reasons to be hopeful. I think there are a few things, like as you were mentioning. Our incarcerated population rose some seven hundred percent between the seventies and around 2007-2010.
TERIN: Yeah, insane and heartbreaking and it has devastated lots of communities, but there are a few things that I think are worth being hopeful about. One is that there have been some huge advocacy and social movements and public pressures and so we see this in a lot of different ways. Folks are talking about mass incarceration in a way that is exciting. A lot of it has come from advocates. A lot of it has come from things such as social movements like the Black Lives Matter movement which has made sure that all of our, as we talk about criminal justice reform, we’re doing it in a way that is centered on racial equity.
So, understanding the ways that our criminal justice system not only is it enormous, but it has also affected certain communities, like black and brown communities, in disproportionate ways. So, some of the things that are hopeful are a lot of the reforms that are being talked about not only reduce incarceration but are also doing it in a way that attempts to address some of these inequities.
So, like, difference in sentencing based on drugs. We’ve had recent pushes for the legalization of marijuana and also expungement of the records for folks that were previously arrested. Some elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences which impact in different states in different ways but generally have impacted communities of color more. So, having a harsh mirror to see but is exciting that we’re looking at the problem head on.
Another thing that you mentioned that I think is worth calling out also is that there is currently and hopefully a longstanding bipartisan alignment in the criminal justice system and understanding that the U.S. system needs overhaul from both the right and the left. I do a little bit of policy modeling for folks that ask for it, but we see folks from the far right, from the far left, large national nonprofits, small grass roots organizations, religious communities, people from all perspectives that definitely differ on exactly what the specific policy implementations might be, but generally agree that there needs to be a smaller, more equitable footprint of the criminal justice system.
So, some of the stuff that I’ve done, it’s been cool to see that bipartisan coalition, and like you said, I don’t know that it’s unique to criminal justice, but it’s definitely not the norm that I’m used to at least.
IVAN: Do you have a feel for what that nugget is that actually makes it bipartisan?
TERIN: I think that part of it is from the numbers and from a standpoint it is so starkly obvious that this is a problem, right. Our population increased, like I said, seven hundred percent over the last several decades that we have five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population. It’s pretty hard to refute. I think that there is an issue and so I think that that has helped. It seems like folks come at it from different directions and different things matter more. I think there’s a lot that is wrong with the criminal justice system and so there’s parts that everyone can get on board with.
IVAN: And it’s easier to work together when you’re basically agreeing that the problem is there but certain aspects of it are more important to some people than to others, so it’s easier maybe to work together when that happens?
TERIN: Yeah, one hundred percent. Also there has been progress. We’ve mentioned some of the terrible stats around the increase of the prison population, but from the height of mass incarceration I believe until 2020 sort of even pre-pandemic there was about a nine percent decrease in the prison population which obviously there’s still a long way to go given what has happened in decades previously. But that does provide some hopeful momentum that we’re moving in the right direction, right? So if we can keep this bipartisan coalition, if we can keep some of these public pressures and build on that momentum, hopefully we’ll continue to move in the right direction.
IVAN: So that is hopeful. So, we’ve reduced the incarcerated population by nine percent in 10 years and in the previous 40 years we saw a 700 percent increase. So, comparatively not a whole lot but still moving in the right direction. Has there been a reduction in racial disparities as well?
TERIN: In certain areas, yes, there has been. So, some of the admission statistics have changed. I know that there are a lot of new reforms that have been aimed at addressing some of the racial inequities that our system has had before. So, changes in drug sentencing to make sure that there isn’t an overwhelming majority of black and brown folks that are disparately impacted or some of the expungement of marijuana records that we’re seeing very recently is a call to try and reduce some of the disparities that previously existed. So, we’re definitely seeing people focus on it and there’s definitely been progress made in that sense.
IVAN: That’s great. That’s really great. You’ve talked about policy impact studies and modeling. That makes it sound like legislators are starting to actually look for data, like they’re actually looking at numbers to drive their legislative decision-making. Is that a fair assessment? Are they actually interested in data or am I extrapolating too much here?
TERIN: That’s definitely right. Legislators are looking for data to help drive their decisions. Like I was saying before it’s hard. There are advocates like lawmakers, people within State governments all doing incredible work to get legislation and policy passed. Their work spans lots of things. They identify the problems, they’re building public sentiment, crafting narratives, getting folks excited. But what it can be missing, especially in criminal justice policies is what is the impact of this potential policy? What do we expect to happen in five or ten years?
How many people will be out of prison? Will there be fewer admissions? How will this affect racial disparities? How much will this cost? Will it save the State money? All those things matter to different people at different times throughout the legislative process. That’s like what I was alluding to is, some of what we have been working on is, for anyone who asks us whether there aren't already impact statements, because there are nonprofits and other folks that are doing this as well. We try and project the impacts of what a policy might be. Basically the whole overall goal is folks who are actually making the decisions about what policies pass and which don’t, should have a full picture of what the policy could do or what the projected impact is going to be as they’re making that decision.
IVAN: Is there a way you can talk about a specific example or something that you’ve recently worked on that might give us more insight into the specifics of this?
TERIN: For sure. I realize that that’s a bit abstract without a concrete example. One of the things that we helped work with, a small part of it, but we helped work on a probation cap bill in California at the end of last year. The idea with probation is that it’s supposed to be an alternative to prison time where folks are under supervision. The idea is that it prevents people from committing new crimes or catches folks when they do. One of the things that’s interesting about the U.S. is that we have about four million people on probation. Our average probation rate is about four hundred percent greater than European countries, so we use it a lot.
IVAN: Is that good or bad that we use it a lot?
TERIN: In a lot of ways in criminal justice it seems like we are doing it more so than all of our counterparts. One of the things that’s interesting about probation research is that there’s actually a lot of research that all of the things that people are worried about with probation. So, catching new crimes, generally that happens within the first couple of years of probation. There’s a lot of research on this, some from the Department of Justice.
And, it turns out that after a certain amount of time that probation is less effective at catching the things that people are scared about, and it's more effective in catching things such as in criminal justice it’s called a technical violation. So those are violations that aren’t new crimes, and someone didn’t break the law, but that they broke some of the rules of their supervision. It could be they didn’t meet with their parole or probation office, or that they missed a specific type of test that they were supposed to take.
IVAN: Or they broke the speed limit and got arrested as a result because they were on parole, or probation rather?
TERIN: Exactly. So all those things that you were just mentioning are things that are not breaking the law, that folks who have super long probation sentences if the research shows that it turns out they’re not committing new crimes but they’re getting caught back up in the incarceration system because of technical violations, that’s a huge problem. So, the probation cap bill was essentially California lowering the maximum length that someone could be on probation to what it thought made sense based on this research. We were able to use data that was available to model how many people would be impacted? What is the potential impact on racial disparities? What is the potential cost avoidance, so how much money is the state not going to spend by having fewer people on probation?
So we worked very closely with an advocate partner who was working with other advocates and lawmakers and we had data just be a very, very small part of this entire process, but it was helpful in making sure the decision makers had access to not only everything that everyone else is providing but also had an understanding of what the potential impacts of this particular piece of reform could be.
We’re certainly not the first folks that are working on this, there are tons of organizations that do some of this analysis, but it’s super-exciting I think to think about like, What if the new norm for criminal justice legislation or any type of legislation was that we have an expectation and an understanding of what the impacts could be, right?
IVAN: The fact that you can use data and modeling to try to understand the effect before you actually implement it and to make a sound decision based on that analysis, I almost feel like this should be the de facto standard, like, why aren’t we doing this if we’re not doing this?
TERIN: We’d love it to be the standard. There are several reasons why it isn’t everywhere as you would expect. Part of it is that it can be really hard. Part of the reason that Recidiviz is around is because some of the criminal justice data can be very disparate. There are lots of different actors that have different pieces of data, that have different levels of being publicly available and what not.
IVAN: And that sounds like a symptom of the fragmentation of the criminal justice system that we’ve also talked about in the series as well. There’s so many different organizations, governments, local states, courts, all of these places that all store their own data in their own way and there’s really no easy, good way to consolidate and collate it all.
TERIN: Departments of corrections do model some policies but they’re inundated with lots and lots of requests to model different policies and they often are limited with resources and so it can be very difficult as well. And there are some nonprofits that also do this work as well. But it’s definitely not the norm in a lot of policies. So, I’m excited to help do our small part in making it more of the norm.
IVAN: Tell me about the feedback loop. We’ve talked about doing the analysis of the data before the legislation is passed. What about after it’s passed and measuring effectiveness of legislation and closing that feedback loop. Tell me why that’s important and what’s being done right now.
TERIN: I think of it at least in sort of two halves. If legislation and policies change what’s possible, like you said, there’s also work to close that feedback loop, make sure that the expected impact is actually happening. So, let’s identify what the upside could be with this legislation and then let’s also achieve that upside.
It’s another side of the story. We passed this amazing legislation. What actually happens? Did it have the impact we expected? Did it not? Who is it affecting? That’s a really important question that is sometimes hard to answer. An interesting example that we’ve encountered is in our work with one of our partner states, Idaho, who has been an incredible partner and we’ve with for a couple of years, a couple of years ago, I want to say in 2017, there was this incredible victory that was won and there were a lot of new reforms that were targeted at improving outcomes on supervision, so helping folks that were either on parole or probation, improve outcomes and get off of it and not go back to prison and succeed.
So, this was done with amazing work from advocates, organizations from researchers, from internal state groups, and one of the new measures that it established was allowing what they called Earned Discharge. This was allowing folks to leave supervision early if they fell into certain categories. When we partnered with Idaho one of the things that their leadership asked us to do was to see how is this new directive going? They had the data but didn’t have the tools to see live how many Earned Discharges were there. What does this pipeline generally look like? Are people getting discharged early? Who is getting discharged early? Where? All the things that would be useful to monitor how the implementation side of it was going.
So, we worked with Idaho leadership to create some tools that would help POs [Parole Officers] across the state. We first did an analysis to see what is happening with Earned Discharges and it turns out that Earned Discharges were not being used nearly to the rate that Idaho had expected and to the goals that they had set for themselves several years ago.
So, one of the things when we presented this to Idaho leadership is, they were very excited about building tools that would help make sure that this Earned Discharge’s new process was being used. We worked with them to help create tools that sort of proactively let folks’ parole and probation officers know when someone is eligible for Earned Discharge to help bring those numbers up.
IVAN: So, like a text message or an email? How does that physically get implemented?
TERIN: We’re still rolling it out exactly so some of the design is TBD, but essentially the idea is how can we serve this to parole and probation officers who understand who is on their case list. How can we make sure that one of the things that they know about is that this person is eligible for Earned Discharge, and so we have some tools that we’ve built out for them that just sort of let's that be a notification that they also see. So, it’s something that they can then talk with the person on supervision about and hopefully use.
I think that it’s very exciting to think of if every policy had this, not only a goal and an understanding of what the expected outcome would be but then also let’s make sure we monitor the progress on the implementation side which is a totally different side. Is what we expected to happen, happening? Where are things getting stuck? Are we impacting just one subset of the population in one area? There are all these interesting questions that arise and that are able to be looked at and whatnot if you have up to date data which is something we’re trying to work on.
IVAN: It’s very agile, right? It’s very software related the way you’re talking about this, and it makes total sense, right? You want to fail fast, you want to see the implementation, see where you’re failing and then go back to the drawing board and implement something new to address that thing. I’m guessing you can’t exactly talk about it as failures in the product when you were talking about it. It’s got to be talked about in a different way I think.
TERIN: There’s definitely more sensitivity, we have to be more careful than with classic consumer technology products. There’s more an emphasis of getting it right upfront. Perspective changes are important as well. But, yeah, I think that you’re absolutely right. The goal is when folks pass policies they believe in and will think will have good impacts, like, let’s make sure we’re having those good impacts. That could be super powerful.
I know that some of the advocacy groups and legislators and some of the folks that we talked to, we talk a lot about is this idea of “reform fatigue” which is people fight tooth and nail to get reforms passed that are incredible, but if you’re not sure if they worked or not or can’t display that or tell folks this helped these people, it causes some fatigue and delays the process of getting new reforms passed. It creates less momentum. So for every bill, if you could say for instance like prison populations were reduced, racial disparities were reduced, costs were reduced. That would be incredibly powerful from a momentum building standpoint. The reasons that we’re cautiously optimistic in continuing to build some of that moment it would be incredible.
IVAN: This makes me cautiously optimistic as well. I would love to have this scale across even larger and bigger swaths of the population, other states, other jurisdictions. That would be amazing.
TERIN: Yeah, me too.
IVAN: So, everything we’ve talked about so far has really been sort of without the idea of the pandemic present. The pandemic’s been with us for over a year now, hard to believe, and I’m sure that the pandemic has affected, maybe sped things up, in the criminal justice system. What has changed? How have things changed because of the pandemic and the work you’ve been doing?
TERIN: That’s a great question. I want to start with the obvious but it is worth resaying. The pandemic, COVID, has been horrible and terrible for everyone involved but especially folks within the criminal justice system, right? People in prison, it’s one of the worst places to be. We’ve seen lots of articles and investigations around how early stages prisons were hotspots for COVID and there were lots of spread of sickness and hospitalizations and deaths, and this quite literally forced everyone in a pretty fragmented criminal justice space to think of ways to decarcerate, to reduce the prison and jail populations quickly.
So, what has been interesting about the last year from a criminal justice perspective is it did force all these different actors, like District Attorney offices, Courts, Departments of Corrections, Departments of Supervision, it’s a question of how can we quickly and safely reduce incarceration? That was top of mind as we were trying to fight this pandemic.
What’s interesting is that prison populations across the U.S. are down about 17 percent in the last year which is huge considering especially we talked about how the decade beforehand there had been about a nine percent decrease, and so now there’s been a 17 percent decrease in this year. That’s a big change for a criminal justice system that is trying to unwind its footprint, right?
IVAN: That’s something that is remarkable. We doubled the speed, well, it’s more than doubled, because 10 years compared to one year and we got twice as many people out in one year as we did in 10 years, that’s incredible. So, I think what you’re saying is COVID somehow sped up the reform efforts and basically removed whatever the obstacles were in getting people decarcerated?
TERIN: Yeah, it by necessity did just that.
IVAN: Wow. Can you talk about what those changes were?
TERIN: Yeah, absolutely. It varied state to state in terms of what was exactly done, but there are a couple different types of changes that happened. Lots of states increased discharges from prison or jail on supervision. So, this could look in the fashion of sort of elderly parole. So, parole is a system where you serve part of your sentence instead of serving it in prison you serve the tail end of your sentence in the community under the same supervision that you have with probation. That’s at a super high level, and so, there were increased folks who were above a certain age and a lot of states were automatically eligible for parole. There was sort of an increase in parole grant rate.
So, when someone is eligible for parole they don’t always necessarily go from prison to parole, there’s a board that usually hears their case. So there was a huge increase in grant rates. A lot of states did what is called Compassionate releases which are just releases from prison for extenuating circumstances. Whether it’s family illness, their own illness, different reasons. So, one of the things was there was an increased set of discharges to supervision.
Another set of changes that a lot of states did was also reducing what is called revocations, which are basically when folks are on some form of supervision and go back into prison, that’s called a revocation, and the goal state is that that never happens.
So, there are a lot of different things that happen. There was some increased leniency on technical revocation so the types of revocations that we are talking about that aren’t breaking laws but are breaking rules of supervision, there were some places that had reduced penalties for some technical violations, some folks suspended some of the types of drug and alcohol testing as a part of that.
So that’s a series of changes to the way that people experience their sentence or whatnot or people transitioning from supervision to incarceration. But there are also a host of operational changes that made life less burdensome for people. Places relaxed some of their contact standards with parole and probation officers and maybe made them less frequent for folks who were on supervision.
They, like the rest of the world, have had to operate in a remote basis, so contacts with the PO or parole or probation officer in a lot of places can be done over phone or by video chat as opposed to having to go into the office, and similarly things like the parole board, the folks that meet to decide if people should actually go out on parole or not, can be done remotely. So, some of these things are seemingly small but can have big impacts.
It’s interesting because some of the changes that impacted these numbers were temporary for sure. Closure of courts, reduced number of arrests from the pandemic might be more temporary but some of these are big changes in the way that we let folks in and out of the system, and so there’s a big open question of now that we can see a little bit of a light at the end the tunnel with the pandemic and as the vaccine rolls out, which of these policies are going to stick? Which ones made sense from a data perspective? Which of these can we continue?
IVAN: It strikes me that the pandemic was a catalyst to all of a sudden make all these changes just to get the numbers down so that the pandemic isn’t worse on the inside in prisons than it could be. I wonder if it hadn’t been for this catalyst of the pandemic how long those changes would’ve otherwise have taken. And to me it’s like, if we can do them seemingly overnight because there is this thing called the pandemic, what other changes are there that we’re not making that we’re making other excuses for, that we could just do overnight and maybe get additional results?
TERIN: We had this moment because of the pandemic where everyone was focused on the same goal of decarceration. We did a lot obviously and moved much more quickly than folks were expecting. How can we continue that? We don't want the pandemic to be the only reason that there is this collective focus. We’re at a super unique point. We did a giant experiment of a bunch of different decarceration policies across the U.S., and now we’re at the point where we can go in either direction. In an ideal world, how do we take where we are now and use this as the new baseline to build decarcerative changes. Or, the other direction is, we want to make sure that we don’t bounce back to the populations that we had a year ago.
IVAN: That’s a risk isn’t it? That we had this decarceration that was monumental over the last year because of the pandemic and then all of a sudden everything bounces back.
TERIN: Definitely. I’m hopeful because it does seem like there has been a lot of momentum, and I’m hopeful that we can capture some of that and that data will play some story of showing folks like, these are the types of changes that happened. And if we could show what the impacts were generally like there was no increased recidivism, etc. There are definitely stories to tell based on the data about what worked well and what didn’t.
I think that the incarceration system is also going to be held a little bit under a microscope as well because of the collateral consequences of the pandemic that aren’t medical, but it’s a huge economic crisis. Incarceration in states is the third biggest category in the state budget behind healthcare and education. And so, states are going to have to face budget cuts and have a lot of scrutiny on where they’re spending money, and so if there are changes that both make sense from a decarceration standpoint but also save the state money, it feels like those could be front and center in a lot of folks’ minds. It does seem like the reforms that happened around the peak of mass incarceration were some of the fallout from the 2008 recession.
So, there are reasons that point us hopefully towards the latter of we’re going to continue with these changes and continue to move forward and continue to build momentum, but we’re at a super interesting inflection point.
IVAN: What do you think the biggest learning has been from the last year, from your perspective?
TERIN: I think that it’s sort of what you were getting at, which is things can move very quickly if everyone’s in alignment. If everyone is focused on the same goal, we can make very quick decisions in a way that I think might have seemed impossible a year ago. There are obviously ways that we could’ve moved more quickly, there were outbreaks in prisons and jails that in an ideal world would not have happened. But, it is just amazing, to see the speed at which we were able to do things is much, much faster than I think people a year and a half ago would’ve expected at all.
IVAN: Yeah, it’s amazing what we could do together once we have a common goal and alignment as humans.
TERIN: Yeah absolutely.
IVAN: Well, Tarra’s story has been so hopeful from teen mom getting her GED of four years in one year, spending time in prison, becoming an attorney, becoming an elected state representative. It’s something that really can serve as a shining example of what’s possible. It’s totally inspirational. What are you hopeful about? Why do you keep working on this problem and in this field?
TERIN: I totally agree that the story is hugely inspirational and incredible and reinforces all the reasons that we need to make sure that folks who have been impacted by the system are front and center of all these discussions. I think there are lots of reasons I am excited to continue the work that we have. Part of it is hearing about stories like Tarra. We do a lot of data work but also, it’s amazing how data is awesome for quantifying and showing folks the scale of impact but it’s also hearing human stories and hearing folks’ personal narratives is also incredibly powerful.
Personally one of the things as I mentioned I have been involved with talking to a lot of different advocates and lawmakers across the U.S. that are interested in this and seeing the disparate places across the U.S. and from all different types of organizations, talking to all sorts of different types of people who are all focused on this issue is extremely exciting and motivating. And something I knew about but hadn’t interacted with in the same way that I have recently.
I do think seeing a lot of the push for criminal justice reform from a racial equity lens that’s been coming from a lot of the Black Lives Matter movements has also been really inspiring. I could go on and on, there are lots of reasons that I’m continually excited about the work, but those are a few of them.
IVAN: Thanks for your time today Terin. It’s been awesome talking to you. Thank you for the energy you brought to the episode. To the knowledge that you’ve been able to share, the data, and to your perspective. I appreciate the time that you’ve had with us today.
TERIN: I appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time today as well.
IVAN: Meeting the Moment: Using Data to Reimagine Criminal Justice has been a partnership between TEN7 and Recidiviz. If you missed any of the episodes, want to listen again or wish to share the series with someone you can find all the episodes at ten7.com/moment.
I now want to take a moment myself to thank the people that made this series possible.
First, thank you Tarra for being willing to tell your story. Your arc is inspirational and I hope we’ll able to get to a place in our country when we no longer need those second chances you spoke of.
Thank you Clementine, for your inspiring leadership of Recidiviz, something without which this series would not have been possible. It’s a joy to have met you and to have worked with you. Thank you. Thank you also to Mari, Lisa, Tilley, Andrew, Julia, Serena and Terin for preparing, for meeting, for revising, for reviewing, for thinking and for using each of your voices to show the empathy you all clearly have and that our world needs. Thank you to the entire team at Recidiviz for partnering with us to make this series a reality.
To the folk at TEN7: thank you to Brian for hearing the thoughts in my head and turning them into words I can speak. Thank you to Jonathan for working tirelessly to produce the audio that you’re listening to right now. Thank you to Lex for the music and for his Ableton chops. And thank you to Roxanne for the transcriptions. The whole TEN7 team is amazing.
And thank you, our listener. I hope you are inspired by listening to the series. I hope you’ll do something in your own circles to make our world a more just and equitable place. I hope we’ve contributed to your life’s story in some way. I hope you’ll go out and want to make things that matter, as well. I wish you peace.
We’ll be back in two weeks time with our regularly scheduled programming. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.
This is Episode 118 of The TEN7 Podcast. It was recorded on April 1, 2021 and first published on May 12, 2021. Podcast length is 48 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumacas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.
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