You Can’t Treasure What You Can’t Measure
February 19, 2015 | Avik Das, Esq., Deputy Director, Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services Department
Today it seems you can do anything you want as long as it is “data-driven and evidence based.” What if the data are unreliable or confusing, and the evidence is unclear, controversial, or even non-existent? Public service agencies, especially those operating in the public safety arena, are tasked to meet needs that cannot wait until the “perfect” solutions are in place—perfect solutions being those that would not only completely satisfy those needs, but also insulate agencies from any and all criticism.
Today it seems you can do anything you want as long as it is “data-driven and evidence based.” What if the data are unreliable or confusing, and the evidence is unclear, controversial, or even non-existent? Public service agencies, especially those operating in the public safety arena, are tasked to meet needs that cannot wait until the “perfect” solutions are in place—perfect solutions being those that would not only completely satisfy those needs, but also insulate agencies from any and all criticism. Instead, such agencies must aspire to deliver timely, high-quality services that reflect a thoughtful walk between “knee-jerk” actions and “paralysis by analysis.”
Based in Chicago, Illinois, the Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services Department (the Department) proudly remains a “work in progress,” a jurisdiction that is never content to sit on its many laurels as a nationally recognized model and laboratory in juvenile justice work. Indeed, the challenge of safely assisting children and young people in conflict with the law, in the least restrictive settings possible, remains as monumental as ever.
A key strategy in this agency’s tool belt to meet this evergreen challenge? Good information on demand.
With the support of NCCD, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), local universities, and advocacy groups, the Department has overseen system-wide improvements to data management systems. Over the last three years especially, manual counts of handwritten paperwork have given way to timely, better-curated, computer-generated reports that give our system unprecedented situational awareness, specifically when it comes to the realm of using detention.
With thousands of court-involved young people to manage, good information on demand allows stakeholders to know where these young people are and why, in relatively real time. This progress did not come overnight, but was born of necessity to address, most recently, increasing detention costs and a legislative change that increased the number of potential young people falling under juvenile justice jurisdiction.
For example, in anticipation of the legislative change, system stakeholders wanted to better understand the potential impact of the entry of additional youth into the system. Key leaders requested the assistance of AECF and NCCD to bring together the agencies and information systems that would help inform that analysis. This effort began almost two years before the legislative change, and reflected a consensus that years of lower detention population would give way to an overcrowded facility if there were no further preparation to absorb the influx with community-based strategies.
Rather than direct resources based on anecdotes or well-intended/experienced opinions, the stakeholders engaged in a rigorous data-gathering effort. After building consensus around common language and definitions surrounding detention, the group worked with NCCD to analyze the county’s detention screening instrument. The results of the analysis showed where data and recordkeeping processes could be improved, and educated the stakeholder agencies about the county’s existing practices. Perhaps most importantly, the analysis affirmed the positive effects of years of work to limit deeper exposure of young people to the system, which motivated the group to go deeper into other decision points.
As another result of analysis, the department established, and continues to convene, monthly data meetings to continuously monitor the quality of detention-related data, and to produce reports for judges. These reports represent substantial technical assistance by NCCD and AECF to give the system timely information that is both detailed and easily understood.
Since the legislation took effect, the projections and how to talk about them have been invaluable in allowing the system to understand how the juvenile justice population is increasing. It gives us a more complete picture of what we are doing well and where we can improve so that in taking action we do not throw out the good with the bad. This commitment to good information on demand has helped the system focus on length-of-stay issues in addition to limiting admissions in the first place. With good length-of-stay information, the court can thoughtfully examine what it can accomplish with a young person in detention in 20 days, for example, that it cannot accomplish in 10 days or less. Staffing and resources have now been committed to reducing length of stay and the reports are watched on a weekly basis to see how many days can be saved in detention. The use of data and analytics to help us keep improving our system, then, is not just beneficial for those who work in the system, but benefits the youth who enter the system—a goal we all share.
Avik Das is the Deputy Director for the Cook County Juvenile Probation and Court Services Department in Chicago, Illinois. He is a licensed attorney and has been with the department since 1999. He chairs the jurisdiction’s Risk Assessment Instrument (RAI) Committee and the Detention Review Workgroup. He is also part of Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Coordination Team to help design and facilitate visits made to Cook County by other jurisdictions, as well as provide JDAI trainings and data-driven support within the jurisdiction. As a member of the JDAI Fundamentals Faculty for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, he facilitates national trainings and presentations for juvenile justice practitioners and other audiences interested in community corrections strategies to support young people in conflict with the law.