Letting data guide social justice policy

JUF Government Affairs panel explains how fact-based analysis is redefining responses to social ills

On December 11, JUF's Government Affairs Committee hosted a panel of speakers who illustrated the intersection between data collection and crafting smart and effective social justice policy.

All three speakers - Cook County's State's Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County State's Attorney's Chief Data Officer Mathew Saniie, and Dr. Amanda Lewis, director of UIC's Institute of Race and Public Policy - were both skilled researchers and master storytellers. 

Chairing the meeting was Steve Victor, Local Vice-Chair of the JUF Government Affairs Committee, who introduced the topic, saying "real, concrete, plentiful numbers can tell a different story, outside one's own experience and opinion."

Setting the stage, Lewis provided an overview of the historical context of social justice policies and their impact on ethnic and racial groups in Chicago, using  UIC's most recent reports under " The State of Racial Justice Project" as a guide. The report focuses on social justice policies in the areas of housing, economics, education, justice and health, connecting it to data about the current needs of Chicago's communities

"We discover again and again that present-day challenges we face stem in part from our failure to address the long-term consequences of decades of formal and widespread private and public discrimination, along with continuing forms of institutional and interpersonal forms of discrimination. The best way to change the future," Lewis said, "is to step beyond the competing public narratives about Chicago to assess-in evidence-based, concrete terms-what the challenges and opportunities are for residents today."

Linking Lewis' research to practice, State's Attorney Foxx, with the assistance of Saniie, reflected on the transformation of the state's attorney's office policies based on the power of data.  When first elected in 2016, Foxx said she realized that, "Driven by fear, to keep people in jail, policies were being created in Springfield without a true analysis of why a person was involved in the criminal justice system."

She began to change the public narrative by using data as an important tool that reflects the real needs of individuals cycling through the criminal justice system. Foxx pushed for a data transparency agenda that shifted the office's relationship with the public, asking Cook County residents to hold her office, the second largest prosecutor's office in the country,  accountable for policy decisions made based on data.

To lead that effort, Foxx hired Saniie as the office's first chief data officer. With over a decade of experience using data and analytics to inform and lead organizations striving to change for the better, both in the public and private sector, Saniie had a clear vision.

"By publishing actual data and allowing the public to see the data, people can come to their own conclusions and, in turn, build more trust with our office," he said. He began to put this into action by first publishing the last seven years' worth of felony review data and then creating a training program for public users on interpretation and utilization of the data.  

Attendees at the first training spanned a diverse audience, from community advocates to family members of incarcerated individuals to law enforcement.  

Reflecting on the meeting, Laura Prohov, of CJE SenorLife, a JUF-affiliate agency, said, "The use of data to objectively identify an issue and then evaluate the success of the implemented changes is so powerful.  Even for those of us not directly involved with the justice system, this work exemplifies what we need to be doing in whatever arena we work in."

To access the Cook County State's Attorney's Data Portal, clickhere .   


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