Empowering communities toward a more equitable criminal justice system

 |   Merisa Heu-Weller, Director of Microsoft’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative

courthouse steps

In 2014, a series of tragic events shook the United States and brought the stories of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown Jr., Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu and Eric Garner to the forefront of the national consciousness. As the nation mourned, it reignited a national conversation around race and the criminal justice system that amplified important and fundamental questions about bias, fairness and equity. Issues that disproportionately impact the black community. As in so many communities across the country, our employee community experienced deep grief, sadness, anger and frustration, and called for change.

We paused. We mourned. We listened. Our employees of color vulnerably shared their own experiences, some from years ago and some very recently. These powerful stories further highlighted the racial disparities that exist within the criminal justice system and reinforced that this was a critical time for Microsoft to engage.

In 2019, we formally launched the Microsoft Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. This initiative invests in partnerships and programs working to drive reforms, focusing on policing. While we recognize that disparities exist throughout the system, we believe that by focusing on policing, and building positive relationships between police and communities, we can help keep people out of the system and reduce the disparities within it. This initiative builds on our previous work and collaborations and enables us to establish new partnerships.

Since 2014, teams across Microsoft have partnered with organizations across the United States working on criminal justice improvements. In Washington State, we supported the Criminal Justice Training Center’s 21st Century Police Leadership program and worked with leaders in the state’s court system to build technology solutions to help judges improve fairness in legal financial obligations.

We joined with the Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and its Justice Policy Center to conduct a survey of the network to learn more about how people perceive criminal justice issues in their communities. A collaboration with the Emerson Engagement Lab and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections resulted in a virtual reality (VR) experience that offer inmates a controlled, immersive and game-like exposure to simulated reentry scenarios. And we helped the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition develop the Criminal Court Data Dashboard, which assembles court dispositions and helps evaluate the impact of reforms on communities.

As the initiative evolves, our goal is to continue to empower communities by increasing access to data highlighting racial disparities in the criminal justice system, facilitating trust-building between communities and law enforcement agencies, and working with law enforcement to improve policing policies, programs and practices. We will do this by applying our technology and expertise to improve access to, and usage of, data highlighting racial disparities while also promoting transparency between those working within the system and the community members they serve. We will continue to partner with nonprofits, local and state governments, communities and research organizations to raise awareness, accelerate their impact, help create safe, thriving communities and drive community-level and broad-scale progress.

Increasing access to data highlighting racial disparities in the criminal justice system

In the United States, an arrest is made every three seconds and only 5% of those arrests are for violent offenses – the majority are for low-level offenses such as “drug abuse violations.” Black people are 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for these types of violations despite research that suggests black and white people use illegal drugs at similar rates. We are working to bring awareness to these types of racial disparities by providing relevant stakeholders with increased access to data, insights and analytics tools. We believe that, through partnerships with organizations such as the Vera Institute, we can provide meaningful insight to help build coalitions, improve transparency and measure progress.

An interaction with law enforcement is often the first step someone takes into the criminal justice system. Enforcement of all forms, but especially arrests, have substantial effects on local communities, officers and our society. The Vera Institute Arrest Trends interactive visualization tool combines 40 years of data from thousands of agencies across the U.S. to produce trends in arrests, arrest demographics, clearance rates and victimizations to enable users to better understand current and historical trends and drive changes in policing policy and practices. We provided support to develop an Azure-based infrastructure that would enable the data analysis and visualizations. We will continue to build on our existing partnership with Vera as we continue to evaluate the data, generate insights and develop shareable findings.

Facilitating trust-building between law enforcement agencies and communities

Negative interactions between law enforcement and the communities they serve can erode trust and relationships. This can negatively impact public safety, degrade a community’s ability to rely on support and impede effective policing. We are working to facilitate trust-building between law enforcement agencies and communities by investing in organizations doing impactful work to promote trust and transparency. By working with organizations such as the Urban Institute, we demonstrate the benefits of increased data access and powerful analytics tools to foster more informed community conversations.

The Urban Institute and the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation will synthesize multiple data sources to create a comprehensive measure of police-community relations at the neighborhood level in Los Angeles. They will then examine variation across neighborhoods and use local convenings to explore how the analysis might be used to help build trust among law enforcement agencies and communities.

Working with law enforcement to improve policies, programs and practices

Police policies, programs and practices can exacerbate disparities in the criminal justice system and often do not address the underlying issues. Individuals involved in minor offenses or harmless activities are often detained unnecessarily and data indicates that some practices (e.g. traffic stops) are deployed at higher rates in communities of color. These interactions with law enforcement officials can be destabilizing and have detrimental financial and emotional effects in the long term. We support innovative programs and policies, such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in Seattle, that are designed to provide law enforcement with more restorative alternatives to service delivery.

LEAD is working to help local law enforcement shift their tactics from punitive to diversionary, particularly when dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness and addiction. LEAD program participants are 58% less likely to be rearrested, nearly twice as likely to have housing and 46% more likely to be employed or receive job training after going through the program. The success of LEAD has garnered national attention and has been replicated in over 50 jurisdictions in the country. We’re working with LEAD to help them serve more people by creating a dashboard that automates the referral process and provides real-time insights to measure the efficacy of diversion tactics.

Creating solutions that reflect ethical principles

In addition to our areas of focus, we recognize there is growing concern among communities, shareholders and our employees that increased application of technology in the criminal justice system may exacerbate racial and socioeconomic disparities. We believe that the responsible use of technology can help preserve safety and we are committed to creating solutions that align to our ethical principles: fairness; inclusivity; transparency; reliability and safety; and accountability.

Finally, these complex societal issues require policy frameworks and agendas designed to drive community-level and broad-scale reforms, so we will also continue to support this important work. We supported the bipartisan First Step Act introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), which was signed into law by President Trump. We are also working with both local and national law enforcement organizations and groups such as the Coalition on Public Safety and Stand Together to advance criminal justice reform policies and programs.

We cannot do this work alone; we believe partnership is essential to driving meaningful progress and we look forward to expanding our partnership network and learning from these organizations as well as continuing to gather input from our employees and other community leaders. We look forward to learning, evolving and sharing insights as we continue.

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