The Criminal Justice Innovation Lab: Adding an Exponent to Impact

Criminal Justice Innovation Lab logo reading "Educate, Innovate, Evaluate"

As a bipartisan, national conversation on criminal justice reform emerges, criminal justice experts like School of Government faculty member Jessica Smith see a chance to enact meaningful and lasting change. In an initiative led by Smith, the School has launched the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab (CJIL). The Lab seeks to gather stakeholders within the criminal justice system to examine problems, find consensus solutions, and effectively measure the impact of their efforts.

Smith, the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, owns a 20-year tenure at the School and has collaborated closely with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, and magistrates.

“All of my projects are done in collaboration with stakeholders, and they address issues that communities care about,” Smith said. “These are highly relevant projects. They generate rigorous research, in part because stakeholders are involved from the start and assist with data collection.”

In 2017–18, over 1.3 million cases were filed in North Carolina’s District Courts alone. North Carolina currently has more than 54,000 people in prisons and jails, and an additional 91,000 under court-ordered supervision. Issues related to overcriminalization, bail reform, and policing have wide ranging implications for communities and citizens. Criminal justice forms a complex web: the system intersects with substance use, mental health, poverty, and racial and other social issues.

“Our work is about creating safer, healthier, more prosperous communities,” Smith said. “We want the Lab to be the place where executive, legislative, and judicial branch officials come for help solving complex criminal justice system problems.”

Smith’s work has already been put into action: as the appointed reporter for the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice from 2015 to 2017, Smith played an integral role in the effort to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. “Raise the Age” legislation was enacted into law in 2017, raising the age of criminal responsibility in the state to 18, effective December 1, 2019.

The School of Government is the largest university-based local government training, advisory and research organization in the United States, providing resources and assistance for officials across the state. The School has long focused on the concept of “impact” as it carries out its mission to improve North Carolina communities through the support of local and state government.

“We always want to examine how our efforts are impacting the lives of North Carolinians,” Smith said. “My work with the Lab just added an exponent to it.”

Learn more about the Lab and how to support its work at cjil.sog.unc.edu.