Partner Projects for Criminal Justice Technology Course / by Jason Tashea

The semester at Georgetown Law starts on Monday, and so does our Criminal Justice Technology, Policy, and Law course. I've already posted the syllabus, but today I'm putting up the project descriptions for the course. To take a step back, this course has a two-hour a week lecture component and a 10-hour a week lab. In the lab, students partner with system stakeholders to work on a discreet technology or data project. I'm happy to say that we have three great partners for this term: the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Below are excerpts from those project descriptions. For the complete descriptions, check out our teaching page.  

Project: Create a sequential intercept model of Maryland’s criminal justice system

Sponsor: Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention

Over the past two decades, Maryland experienced a decrease in crime. However, its prison population has remained stubbornly high. This has lead to an expensive corrections system ($1.3b in FY2014), while alternatives to incarceration and other treatment options remain underfunded.

Acknowledging these shortcomings, in 2015 the state legislature created the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council to “develop a statewide framework of sentencing and corrections policies to further reduce the state’s incarcerated population, reduce spending on corrections, and reinvest in strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism.” The findings of the Council became the basis of 2016’s Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA), the most comprehensive criminal justice reform in Maryland in a generation.

This holistic reform will change the way that people interact with the justice system and how resources are used. The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP) is in charge of evaluating the JRA’s impacts.

The goal of this project is to map the Maryland criminal justice system to understand how the JRA will affect people, personnel, and financial resource allocation by creating a sequential intercept model. Sequential intercept models identify institutional intercept points for a person progressing through the criminal justice system. They are designed to help policymakers identify opportunities for better resource allocation. Here, your work will also borrow from best practices in describing and mapping system processes. This project will inform GOCCP’s legislative work in the coming years.

Project: Create a tool to calculate eligibility for a public defender

Sponsor: Maryland Office of the Public Defender

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is modernizing how it calculates eligibility for their services. At the moment, the calculations are done by hand, costing valuable staff time. Currently, an intake worker can spend 10-15 percent of her time making these calculations.

Soon, the responsibility for making most of these determinations will fall to the courts, rather than OPD. However, OPD will retain responsibility for determining eligibility in appellate, post-conviction,  and juvenile delinquency proceedings, and occasionally witnesses.

In Maryland, eligibility for OPD services is not merely income-based. They take a hybrid approach that estimates the potential financial burden of a case (based on the offense charged) and compares it to a defendant’s ability to meet that burden. In other words, the eligibility formula is based on a mix of underlying data and could change over time.

The goal is to create an indigency calculator that accurately determines whether an adult or juvenile qualifies for representation from OPD. Whatever tool is built must be usable by OPD staff in the place where they make a determination. OPD staff should be able to edit the tool’s internal logic when necessary. A successful tool will accurately make an eligibility determination, show the justification for that determination, and demonstrably save OPD staff time.

Project: Create a database to assess judicial appointments of attorneys in felony criminal cases

Sponsor: Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

In 2012, Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, was the last jurisdiction of its size to establish a public defender service (HCPD) in the United States. Before the creation of the HCPD,  the county court used the “Wheel” System to appoint attorneys for indigent clients. The “Wheel” is a rotating list of pre-approved members of the local bar that a judge can appoint to defend an indigent client. Created by state statute, this system is still in practice and judges in Harris County appoint attorneys, including public defenders, based on this system.

This system has come under scrutiny. Charges are leveled that judges are overriding the list and picking favorites at the detriment of defendants. In a 2016 survey of criminal defense attorneys in Harris County, a vocal minority said that judges were picking attorneys that would either plead a client quickly or attorneys that had donated to a judge’s election campaign.

The goal of this project is to structure and analyze a novel dataset to see if there is a correlation between defense appointments, campaign donations, and/or plea deals.