Technology Confronts the Revolving Door

 Michael Marcus
 March 30, 2000
published in the April, 2000, issue of The Verdict
(Oregon District Attorneys Association)

    We know that the vast majority of offenders are repeaters.  Portland’s jail statistics provide a vivid view of the problem.  Of the seven offenders jailed for burglary in November, 1999, five had been in jail in Portland for something in the prior year; as had ten of the twelve jailed for robbery, five of the seven jailed for felony assault, seven of the ten jailed for theft I, 50 of the 65 jailed for felony drug offenses, nine of the 18 jailed for misdemeanor assault, and 35 of the 43 jailed for car theft. [click here  for a more recent set of these statistics; return with the "back" function]   However we measure them, our 65-75 percent recidivism rates represent dismal public safety performance.

     I think our performance is in large part a product of the clerical heritage of the criminal justice morality play (after all, where else in a democracy do people wear robes?), and in part an absence of good information about how to reduce recidivism.   Both are changing. A 1996 ballot measure amended our constitution to add “protection of society” to the listed purposes of criminal sentences (Or Const Art I, sec 15); the 1997 Legislature made preventing recidivism the major test of our performance in corrections; and the Oregon Judicial Department resolved in 1997 that in addressing public safety, sentencing judges “should consider and invite advocates to address the likely impact of the choices available to the judge on future criminal conduct.”

     Technology has now made it possible for those involved in sentencing, probation, release, and corrections decisions to have profoundly improved access to the information critical to the public safety objective. The Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council has invested in a “DSS-Justice” project (“DSS” refers to “Decision Support System” technology) and its “Sentencing Support” tools to improve our performance in reducing recidivism.  The Department of State Police and the Information Resource Management Division of the Oregon Department of Administrative Services are building a “Public Safety Data Warehouse” and the Oregon Judicial Department is committed to distributing sentencing support technology to judges state-wide.    These tools will become commonplace in sentencing decisions, plea negotiations, and probation violation dispositions.

     Sentencing support technology, as it now exists in Multnomah County, exploits a “data warehouse” – simply a central repository of data gleaned from numerous criminal justice sources: arrest and jail data, sheriff and police data, court data, and district attorney data are included so far, with Department of Corrections, 911, probation, and alcohol and drug data on the way.  When I enter a case number, the software asks me which charge I am sentencing on, suggesting whatever is count 1 of the charging instrument, but allowing me to choose any other charge in the case or known to Oregon state or local law.

     When I’ve selected the charge for sentencing and submitted it for analysis, the software performs several tasks: it selects a category of sentencing experience based on the charge (property crimes for a theft case, for example), a category of offenders based upon what we know about the offender (presently criminal history – divided into five levels of six categories of criminal behavior; age, gender, ethnicity), and an outcome measure based on some flavor of recidivism (for the theft offender’s sentencing, the system would propose a measure of the absence of a new conviction for any property crime within three years of sentencing).  Based on these defaults, the software displays a bar chart of all sentencing components (community service, jail, theft talk, etc) commonly used for similar offenders, with the bars sized according to the proportion of each sentencing component that correlates with “success” by the outcome measure.

     Critical to the usefulness of this tool is that users can modify any of the defaults and click a button to recalculate to see what difference, say, a change in the criminal history of the offender or the outcome measure may be. Users can run different choices through the system in preparation for and during a sentencing hearing. We may be sentencing a sex offender on a theft charge, for example, and might want to see whether there’s anything we should know about how similar offenders have fared in terms of future sex crime when divided by the various things we’ve done to them.

     Below the bar chart, the software displays all of the data in a table form, so users can readily determine how much data supports each of the “outcomes,” and can also access data on those sanctions less-frequently used for similar offenders when sentenced for similar crimes.

     My announcement to the judicial community of our first run of this tool against real data used an analogy to the Wright Brothers’ flights at Kitty Hawk: the impact on criminal justice will be as profound as theirs was on transportation, but we have about as far to go to full exploitation of this technology as they had to get to a Boeing 737.  We already have a challenging list of enhancements and pressing plans for expansion beyond the small slice of bench probations the tool now compares.  The tool should link to useful literature about sentencing considerations, particularly in the domestic violence and sex offender arenas because there is so much useful literature that goes unnoticed by our system.  A “focus group” regularly attending to these improvements includes Deputy District Attorney Tom Cleary, John Connors (a public defender), myself, the technical lead for the project from Multnomah County ISD, and DSS Coordinator Nancy Arnot.  We are adding six Multnomah County judges as “beta users” in the very near future.

     Of course, there are many offenders for whom lengthy incarceration is the best public safety device, and many more who will not change no matter what we do.  And there are many limitations on sentencing discretion.  But there is a vast role for prosecutorial and judicial discretion in most cases, and this tool will enable us to do far better with some offenders than we now do blindfolded and by accident.

     This technology will eventually reach every Oregon practitioner in criminal justice.  It will challenge all of us to exploit new skills, and it will require us to modify our approach to disposition of criminal cases.  As this tool grows, I hope to follow up on practical and tactical considerations in its use.  If you’re interested in more information, please visit the web site identified below.  It contains screen shots of the software, latest developments, frequently asked questions, legislative, administrative, and judicial material, and an e-mail link by which to give us suggestions and feedback.

     Sentencing support technology will soon vastly enhance our impact on public safety.