Mar 2, 2009

"Ideas in Practice:" Using Data to Build Your Program

The Ideas in Practice series offers transparency to practitioners on the process of starting and implementing reentry projects in your own area. By no means the only model for this kind of activity, our Task Force initiative has yielded some interesting results so far, and we thought we'd share some of the key components of our process. [Check out the Problem-Solving Factsheets available from the Center for Court Innovation.]

Because problem-solving justice initiatives are designed to build stronger connections between citizens and the justice system, performing a community needs assessment is usually a top priority for any new problem-solving program. Both quantitative data (rates of arrest, most common criminal charges, etc.) and qualitative data (results from focus groups, surveys measuring community perceptions of safety, etc.) can be useful to planners. Only when a community’s problems, strengths, and resources have been clearly defined can planners start
generating solutions. Consulting with as many relevant stakeholders (e.g., elected officials, local police, and clergy) as possible right from the start can also help build support for new approaches.

There are six steps to make this happen and they can be found in the Center for Court Innovation's factsheet on gathering data.

1. Gather quantitative data.
Planners need quantitative data to sharpen their understanding of community problems. Relevant numbers are available from an array of sources, including the United States Census Bureau (, state administering agencies (, state and local court systems, police departments, district attorneys’ offices, correction agencies, welfare agencies, departments of education, health and social services, housing authorities, and other government agencies.

At the Reentry Task Force, we found that getting the right people on our task force was really the most important step. Once we had the investment of key agency stakeholders, it was much easier to make data requests and to receive the data in a timely manner.

2. Observe court processes or other justice system activities.
Some data isn’t readily available. In that case, planners might be able to gather the raw data themselves. Planners can also collect valuable information by:

  • Observing court proceedings and recording dispositions over a week
    or two weeks to understand how judges, prosecutors, and defense
    attorneys respond to particular cases.
  • Polling defendants to find out what kinds of problems they
    have—drug use, homelessness, and any other issues.
  • Talking to system insiders who might be able to accurately
    estimate numbers that are otherwise unavailable, or who can explain
    how things operate and the logic behind current approaches.

With respect to reentry, our site visits to correctional facilities, parole programs, and even out-of-state reentry projects provided some key qualitative data about discharge planning and reentry programming.

3. Interview stakeholders.
Stakeholder interviews are structured interviews designed to get feedback on a set of questions. These interviews help planners to gain an understanding of how a neighborhood works, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, assets, and concerns. Interview subjects can include, for example: elected officials, local police, clergy, school officials, block association representatives, social service providers, merchants, and social and civic groups.

During our needs assessment process, the Task Force conducted ten stakeholder interviews from January through July of 2008. A series of key questions were developed to guide the interview process. These questions included queries about perceptions of safety, reactions to the current state of reentry policy, and ideas for change. Interview subjects included elected officials, law enforcement officers, 7 parole staff, formerly incarcerated persons, service providers and advocates. Interviews lasted approximately 1.5 hours and were conducted in person or via phone.

4. Convene focus groups.
Focus groups are facilitated discussions around a pre-determined set of questions. Planners should convene focus groups to get input from community members who are part of underrepresented groups or members of important constituent groups.

In Upper Manhattan, a total of five focus groups were conducted. Focus group participants included persons on parole, parole officers, and community residents. Similar to the stakeholder
interviews, a set of questions was used to facilitate the conversation. The Justice Center’s
Researcher and Planning and Operations Manager, working with the Task Force Coordinator, led the focus groups. Focus group participants were recruited from community board and precinct council meetings where staff members made presentations about this assessment process and solicited feedback about the issue. Community focus groups were assembled from sign-in sheets circulated at these meetings and took place at the Harlem Community Justice Center over a two-hour period. Parole officers and parolees were convened with the assistance of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court and similarly met for two hours at the Justice Center.

5. Administer surveys.
Community surveys can give planners a detailed picture of a community’s priorities,
expectations, and self-image. A well designed survey gathers information from hundreds and potentially thousands of stakeholders and crystallizes information into quantifiable data.

6. Use data to identify key problems.
Once planners have gathered data in these various ways, they need to sit down and synthesize
the information to define the key problems facing the community and pinpoint the community’s assets. By this stage, many good ideas for solutions have probably already surfaced; others can be harvested by talking to local members of the criminal justice system, and by turning to other jurisdictions that are handling similar problems in creative ways. Questions to ask include:

What are the problems in this community?
What is currently being done to address these problems?
What resources are available to help solve these problems?
How could these problems be better addressed?

In Upper Manhattan, these conversations took place at our stakeholder interviews, focus groups, and full Task Force meetings. It was also helpful to have the Justice Center's research associate sort through all of the information we had gathered -- and to run our findings past experienced experts as a double-check.