Funding Catalyzes Continued Growth for Criminal Justice Innovation Lab

Six members of the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab team seated and standing in front of leafy trees and grass.

By Claire Cusick

The UNC School of Government’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab has received $500,000 in new funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. To date, the Lab has received more than $1.6 million in funding from the Foundation.

“Research, scholarship, and data will help local leaders keep communities safe while honoring the dignity of each person touched by the justice system,” Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers said. “We are excited to continue to support UNC’s Criminal Justice Innovation Lab in its mission to help improve public safety and strengthen communities.”

This latest grant supports the Lab’s operations, rather than specific projects. Other Lab funders include the Richard J. and Marie M. Reynolds Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and RTI International. The new funding allows the Lab to continue expanding its impact.

“We are thrilled to receive this additional gift from the Charles Koch Foundation,” said Jessica Smith, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government and the Lab’s director. “The Foundation helped to stand up the Lab. Its continued financial support allows us to help state and local stakeholders improve their communities while developing evidence-based reform models that can be scaled state- and nationwide.”

Charles Blackwood, sheriff of Orange County and president of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said he is glad to hear about the Lab’s funding. “Expansion of the Lab is critical to the mission of improving the criminal justice system in North Carolina and the way that we manage justice-involved individuals at every level.”

Innovative Tools

In the U.S. and in North Carolina, it can be challenging to get basic information about how state and local criminal justice systems function. Seeking to address this data gap, the Lab developed its Measuring Justice Dashboard, an interactive platform that allows users to explore a variety of criminal justice system metrics with simple, clear data visualizations. With the dashboard, users can—among other things—examine criminal charging rates at the county and state levels, tailor searches by offense category and time period, compare charging across racial groups, and see how charging rates have changed over time. The Dashboard helps stakeholders understand state and local systems, see where they are doing well, and spot areas that may need attention.

Nathaniel Poovey, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge in Catawba County, said data helps the justice system continue to improve. “We’re charged with the constitutional duty to administer justice fairly and efficiently. The more information we have to analyze the processes we use and the results we achieve, the better we can perform our duty.  It’s extremely important that we not get set in our ways, and that we don’t just keep doing things the way we always have and expect a different result. We must continually evaluate how we can improve the job we’re doing.” he said. “The Lab helps us do that. There’s no other organization that I know of that is able or has the funds to go behind the scenes and crunch those numbers.”

Small Team, Big Impact

The Lab seeks to promote public safety, a fair and effective criminal justice system, and opportunities for economic prosperity through an evidence-based approach. It produces foundational research—like the Measuring Justice Dashboard—helping stakeholders better understand the system. It also executes pilot projects with diverse stakeholders, such as judges, prosecutors, defenders, police chiefs, sheriffs, business leaders, and state and local officials. The Lab also develops model tools that stakeholders can use “as is” or adapt to local needs and resources. “We partner with stakeholders across North Carolina, in rural, suburban, and urban communities,” Smith explained. “Our goal is to produce practical scholarship for impact. When we’re evaluating projects, we ask a fundamental question: What’s the expected impact?”

The Lab does not champion specific policies. Adhering to the School’s core value of non-advocacy, it helps stakeholders craft initiatives that meet their communities’ pressing needs. The Lab’s commitment to nonpartisan support gives it credibility across the political spectrum, said Tarrah Callahan, founder and executive director of Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, a Raleigh-based advocacy organization.  “We advocate for common sense, data-driven solutions,” Callahan said. “We rely on objective data to inform the policies we support, which the Lab has a reputation for producing. I cannot overstate the importance of the Lab’s work in this space, and I personally feel more confident about any policy effort around which we are advocating if I know that our position is supported by evidence produced by the Lab. Its commitment to nonpartisan, nonadvocacy research helps reduce stakeholder concerns of bias in the evidence.”

The Lab team includes Smith and five other full-time team members. “To help stakeholders solve complicated problems, we need an interdisciplinary team,” Smith said. The team’s expertise includes law, economics, public policy, political science, public administration, social work, city and regional planning, public health, and computer and data science.

Stakeholder-Driven Projects

The Lab has partnered with the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police on two large projects, the just-completed Citation Project and the ongoing Alternative Responder Project. That second project seeks to better understand alternative police responder programs in the state, including co-responder programs, mobile crisis teams, and homeless outreach initiatives. “All across North Carolina,” Smith explained, “stakeholders are telling us that they want to improve how they respond to things like substance use, behavioral health crises, and homelessness.”

It also supports North Carolina’s business community on issues regarding second chance hiring of justice-involved people, an issue that has become important for workforce development and the state economy.

Wayland Sermons Jr., Senior Resident Superior Court judge for the Second Judicial District heard Smith present on one of the Lab’s pretrial pilot projects. “I came away from that meeting asking myself why we couldn’t have such a project in my district, which are five counties, all of them rural, all of them poor … that had very few adequate jails,” Sermons said.

Sermons, assisted by his Trial Court Manager Paula Weathington and the Lab, assembled a group of stakeholders from Beaufort, Martin, Washington, Tyrrell, and Hyde counties. The group included the Chief District Court Judge, district attorneys and public defenders, plus the sheriffs of each county and representatives from each’s probation office. Their work led to new initiatives, and the Lab helped evaluate their impact.

The immediate feedback contained in the weekly reports helped the project get buy-in from all stakeholders, Sermons said. “Having that weekly data enabled us to have sit downs, and face-to-face meetings with magistrates, to find out what the issues were, and to correct the problems,” he said. “And indeed, it did correct the problems.”

Both Sermons and Weathington appreciated the process and the results of their pilot project. “The opportunity to work with the research team was an amazing experience,” Weathington said. “The quality of professionalism and outstanding research has made the district uniform and allowed our jails to reduce population.”

“The entire experience was well worth the time invested, and we recommend it to anyone interested,” Sermons said. “Specifically, having more information in making a change in any kind of policy is crucial to getting it right.” Everyone in the judicial system wants to get it right, he said, but each person has their own job to do, and no time to examine the data. “But Jessie brings the ability to get those numbers for you, and you decide what kind of policy you want. She doesn’t come down and tell you what to do. She tells you what your numbers are, and what the proposals are, and what can happen.”