Exploring the impact of research and data on corrections
David Edwards of the Missouri Department of Corrections shines a light on how data can catalyze innovation and empathy
This article is reprinted with permission from Recidiviz, which started as a volunteer project at Google to uncover how technology could standardize criminal justice data and improve the system nationwide.
In criminal justice, a transformation is underway — one driven by research and data collaboration. In this interview, we delve into the heart of this evolution with David Edwards, the director of research, planning and process improvement at the Missouri Department of Corrections, who shines a light on how data can catalyze innovation and empathy.
Recidiviz: How would you describe your job to a 13-year-old?
David Edwards: Our team uses numbers to help leaders understand changes in the makeup of the population we supervise. We discover where the work we do to help people is making a difference in their lives, and determine where to invest our money and staff time. We help leaders make decisions about changes needed to improve our work.
How can data improve outcomes for corrections staff and justice-impacted people?
David Edwards: When staff get information about new ideas and see data differently, their outlook changes. In my experience, providing information about research that shows what is likely to be effective creates excitement about our work and spurs innovation. Data collaborations that produce dashboards or tools empower staff to interact with the data, making them active participants in a process that otherwise can seem somewhat removed from their day-to-day work responsibilities. I believe this process strengthens staff members’ understanding of how their work impacts justice-involved people, and the feedback they get from the collaboration gives meaning to what can sometimes seem like an exceedingly tedious task of data entry. Justice-involved people benefit because staff have a more complete picture of their situation and experiences and have more information about interventions and services that might be helpful.
What’s something you wish your colleagues knew about working in the research department?
David Edwards: It’s important for our staff to understand that putting data into the system isn’t just busy work. The information is valuable, the accuracy of the input is vital, and we use the data to develop tools and secure resources that can help our staff be more effective in their day-to-day work. In addition to getting this message across to our staff, we need to help legislators and other state government leaders understand the importance of investing in technologies to help ease the strain for people performing highly stressful jobs while improving public-safety outcomes.
What’s been most useful to you about the partnership with Recidiviz? How do you anticipate you’ll continue to leverage Recidiviz’s data and tools to boost your team’s capacity?
David Edwards: The most useful thing is the change that comes from producing an “ah-ha” moment for staff when the information they often struggle to find is displayed succinctly and professionally in one product. The products themselves are fantastic, but what I have come to appreciate most is their impact on how staff see our work. As we move forward in our partnership, I hope we can continue to develop insightful dashboards and data-summary tools, develop applications that go beyond static reports so that staff can make informed behavior-management decisions in the timeframe they need to make them, and explore how novel uses of data and applications can make our work more efficient.
How have you used data to enhance collaboration and information sharing between different departments and agencies within your system?
David Edwards: We frequently share data with other state agencies and research partners, but each data collaboration focuses very narrowly on a specific program or process. As an agency, we are very interested in bringing data together to better serve the Missourians we supervise and reduce potential information gaps for staff. We participate in multiple state and national projects that aim to advance interagency data sharing to the extent that it helps provide better outcomes for the citizens of Missouri.
Can you share a specific example of how Recidiviz’s insights have influenced a key decision or policy within your department?
David Edwards: Recidiviz developed a tool that helped our division of probation and parole understand revocations from community supervision to prison. One insight that surfaced was a need to focus on absconding behavior. The division’s quality control team began working with districts individually to help them understand what insights might be found in their data. Over the past two years, our absconding rate has fallen by 13% and 29%, respectively, from a FY2021 baseline. I believe that change can largely be attributed to the on-the-ground decisions based on these data insights. We have been able to make an impact on the issue without making significant policy changes.
How has the availability of data impacted your ability to monitor and measure the effectiveness of various programs and interventions?
David Edwards: Data helps us understand how case planning is progressing for community supervision. We are really excited about a tool we are working on to help us better manage stays in restrictive housing within our institutions.
Any other reflections or advice you’d like to share for DOCs looking to invest in research and data to improve criminal justice outcomes?
David Edwards: In Missouri, we are innovative and we have worked really hard over the years to use research and data in our programs and services. We have a lot of data in structured systems, even if they are spread out, which can be challenging. My message for other agencies: Even if you think you are at the top of your game with research and data, you can gain insights and efficiencies from taking a fresh look at how your data and systems connect and interact with one another. We have gotten a fresh look at our data by partnering with Recidiviz and taking advantage of the nonprofit’s expertise and innovative technology. The partnership has helped us identify areas where we can better utilize data to create safer communities.