Tech & Partner Violence: Promise & Peril / by Jason Tashea

Last Thursday and Friday I was a part of the "Technology and violence against women: Protection and Peril" symposium hosted by the Ortner Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This was an opportunity for experts in domestic violence, government, justice, law, social work, and technology to come together and discuss the pending and forthcoming policy issues surrounding technology and intimate partner violence (IPV). This was a unique and exciting opportunity to discuss issues that I care deeply about, but, more importantly, to learn about how technology is affecting IPV, good or bad.

The talks were universally enlightening. Topics included new tools and platforms (if you haven't checked out Callisto, fix that before you continue reading), data, smart guns, revenge porn, innovations in post-assault evidence collection, and about a half dozen more.

The challenges are vast regarding IPV, and the promises of new techniques and technologies are not fully realized. Many of the apps that are being developed might be good in concept, but are insufficient in practice. The need to accurately document physical trauma on darker skinned people remains. Smart guns have the potential to crimp gun violence generally, but may be neutral in impacting IPV specifically.

The symposium acted as a place to not only confront these challenges, but to also discuss policy prescriptions. The Ortner Center will be producing white papers on proposed policies. (Here’s hoping that procurement reform and data trusts make the list!)

More broadly than the specific talks themselves, this symposium was unique due to the intersection of topics. The field of justice and technology remains nascent and is obscure to many, so an event like this remains a novel treat.  When I asked Susan B. Sorensen, who is a professor at Penn and runs the Ortner Center, about this symposium and her motivation around it she said it was driven by her curiosity as she witnessed a changing landscape on account of tech. However, she was uncertain about the timing of the event. She admitted that the conference could be too early, which would make it bleeding edge as opposed to cutting edge.

This is a sentiment that I've been feeling for awhile. I know I've seen improvement and increased awareness over the past few years; this symposium and our symposium last week are evidence of an evolution toward greater awareness of these issues. However, when I speak to individuals at more established criminal justice organizations or attend so-called “justice and tech” events, they often don't see the intersection of these two worlds or the need for a singular focus on this subject, like how juvenile justice or bail reform has its experts. However, to draw this analogy out, I think we are beginning to see the blood coagulate. Vera now has a VP of tech and justice, the White House put out its Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the fact that media covers this issue with more savvy all indicate that the issues around tech and justice are moving from the shadows and into the mainstream.

After the stimulating symposium, I wanted to reflect on this moment in criminal justice reform and our country’s history on the subject. So, I spent a few hours on Saturday at Philly's Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1821, this facility was the first penitentiary in the world and ushered in the promise of a more humane criminal justice system that brought prisoners closer to God through solitary confinement, which would make the individual penitent.

For nearly 100 years, Eastern State was operated under this theory, called the Pennsylvania system, and more than 300 prisons were opened around the world with the same structure.

The Pennsylvania system and Eastern State were controversial from the start. Primarily at odds with Sing Sing Prison and the New York system, which focused on inmate collaboration and labor, Charles Dickens best articulated the conflict between a righteous plan and a ruinous outcome. After his visit in 1842, he went on to write:

In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,... and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

Today, many criminal justice advocates and the United Nations consider solitary confinement to be torture. However, it wasn't until 1913 that Eastern State ended this practice, primarily because the use of solitary was incompatible with the facility’s overcrowding. Many other prisons around the world continued to use this practice into the post-war period. 

The lessons of Eastern State are numerous, but the largest may be that good intentions and a righteous plan don't guarantee humane reform. 

Currently, the U.S. is experiencing the largest push for criminal justice reform in the last century. Decades of increased and mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and indefinite collateral consequences following system contact are now apparent and intolerable to many.

With increased attention, there are novel and varied solutions to these system ailments, including those that come from the tech industry. This week's symposium focused on some of them. Similar to what Dickens acknowledged in 1842, these are projects that are being built with a benevolent purpose but have little understanding of the nature of the problem, end user, or systems they look to affect. This is creating defective, unreliable, and dangerous tools.

I was impressed with the two women that I met at this symposium from the National Network to End Domestic Violence who run  This a needed resource (I've been kicking around a similar idea to build off our survey on new criminal justice tech), that individually tests each tool as an end user. Time and again, they explain, these tools fall short of the mark. They find incorrect geo-tagging, promises to send a text to police in a jurisdiction where police does not receive texts, and design that doesn’t consider victims/survivors of IPV. These are horrifying errors when considering someone is supposed to rely on them before, during, or after their personal safety is at risk.

This is unacceptable.  Without any independent certification or accountability for such tools, however, there's nothing to stop people from making available well-intentioned websites or apps that jeopardize someone's life. Arguably, there is a level of liability for these developers that could land them in criminal or civil court; however, if that happens it means the worst has already occurred to the user that attempted to rely on the faulty tool.

The stakes are too high for sloppy or ineffectual “innovations”.

To be clear, this isn't a problem unique to tech. Our analogue criminal justice system is rank with ineffectual ideas that ruined lives: the death penalty, scared straight programs, and the Pennsylvania system are just three of a much longer list. As we witness the incoming wave of next gen criminal justice innovations, we need to acknowledge how easy it is to screw up reform, and then we need to create standards as a community to mitigate these potential errors.

The Pennsylvania system was supported by the country's first criminal justice reform organization: the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. They had the stated goal of wanting a prison system that reformed people, not merely hold them in raucous environments with others who committed a crime. This group thought their model improved the status quo. This group, largely informed by the majority's Quaker faith, didn't think they were institutionalizing a human rights violation.

It's important that we acknowledge that righteous paths can still create ruinous results. Altruism will never be sufficient to make tech-for-good good. Events like the one at the Ortner Center is one large step forward to create awareness of this issue. However, if we, the reform community, don't take meaningful steps to hold technology accountable in the IPV and criminal justice spaces, then we've already embarrassed ourselves to future generations that will look back at this moment as a missed opportunity, or worse, something akin to a human rights violation.