Overstretched jails, out-of-reach data

Over the last 30 years, prison and jail populations have increased by 500 percent. Not surprisingly, this has left many communities facing jail population pressures.  At the local level, many different agencies—judges, prosecutors, police, etc.—who make decisions that can impact the jail population do not have access to data that can help them understand the impact of those decisions in real time.

In 2013, the City of Louisville and Jefferson County Criminal Justice Commission enlisted Code for America to work on addressing overcrowding in the local jail. Jail Dashboard is a tool that gives judges, corrections staff, and others a real-time, in-depth view of its metro jail system. The dashboard helps to understand conditions at the jail and help make better informed decisions at  both the individual and policy level.

If data is powerful enough to transform baseball, healthcare, and education, it can do the same for criminal justice.

— Ann Milgram, Vice President of Criminal Justice, Laura and John Arnold Foundation

<p>Fellows work with police officers to make data driven decisions.</p>

Fellows work with police officers to make data driven decisions.

Approaching the problem

Like many U.S. cities, Louisville found itself in a continual struggle with overcrowding in its jails. This challenge was compounded by a lack of real-time awareness of conditions in the various parts of its criminal justice system.

“People in the justice system, the officials, they all want to do the right thing.They recognize the issues and they all want to help, they’re all trying to reach agreement and common ground.” - Shanik Kashyap, Code for America Fellow

Louisville knew they needed to find a way to share jail data across the system and in early 2013, the Director of Louisville Metro Corrections was tasked with sending a weekly email to a small group of judges and other officials, detailing capacity in the central jail facility, as well as incarceration alternatives. The text-based report was hand­-compiled by corrections staff in the hopes that the report would inform sentencing and increase reliance on alternative sentencing programs.

When the Code for America fellows came to Louisville, their goal was support the city and help them find a way to use technology to share the information they were already compiling and trying to share. The jail management dashboard was just the tool to do this.


Since the fellows left Louisville in November, 2013, the City has continued to maintain the dashboard. The dashboard has even spread to other cities, including the City of Denver. They pulled the code from GitHub (an open source platform) and launched the dashboard in their city.

“The jail dashboard has increased visibility into our operations and has been a key instrument for data-driven decision-making,” said Chief Gary Wilson of the Denver Sheriff’s Department.

<p>Part of the dashboard interface.</p>

Part of the dashboard interface.

The Criminal Justice Commission has been waiting since about 1980 to have something like this. When they saw the first real iteration of the dashboard, there were literally tears in people's eyes because they could answer questions in real time and they had confidence in the data. It was just breathtaking.

— Beth Niblock, Former CIO, Louisville Metro Government

Next Steps

In addition, Code for America is working with at least three more law enforcement agencies in 2016 to deploy the dashboard in their jurisdictions. Through these pilots, we’ll be looking at  Jail Dashboard’s effectiveness on case-level and system-level decisions made by district attorneys, judges, sheriffs, and other users that affect jail populations.

If our theories are correct, we’ll see decreases in: jail population; time spent in jail by those with low level, nonviolent offenses; and those in jail for failure to appear or technical probation violations.