In 2010, Alaska’s lawmakers were working to overhaul the state’s criminal justice reform system. At the time, former Governor Sean Parnell was launching his Choose Respect Initiative, a campaign to end the epidemic of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse in the state. His administration tapped the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center to help provide research and data to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.
Many statewide agencies were involved, from criminal justice to health organizations, including the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (AMHTA). The AMHTA’s former director, Jeffrey Jessee, now UAA’s vice provost of Health Programs and dean of the College of Health (COH), realized the value of UAA’s Justice Center’s data and research, and reached out to former Justice Center director André Rosay, now the associate dean of Academic and Student Affairs in the COH. The two discussed how the Justice Center could be more involved in providing data to lawmakers to help them make more informed policy decisions regarding criminal justice.
Throughout the Choose Respect campaign, Jessee and Rosay worked closely and the idea of an independent center, focused solely on criminal justice data, was formed. The two pooled their resources to bring their idea to fruition and with help from the AMHTA, the Alaska Legislature and the university, the Alaska Justice Information Center (AJiC) was established in 2015.
“The Justice Center has a long history of being the independent fact-finder,” Jessee said. “AJiC is just continuing that work.”
A need for data
Fast forward to 2017 and AJiC has already had a busy first two years, releasing their first big report, the Alaska Results First Initiative earlier this fall.
“I think it’s critically important now and into the future for what we refer to as ‘evidence-based policymaking,’” said Brad Myrstol, interim director of the UAA Justice Center (or AJiC Director), explaining why AJiC is important not only to UAA but to Alaska as well. “Particularly in the area of criminal justice—but I think in other policy domains as well.”
Myrstol said that using data to make evidence-based policy decisions is not just an Alaska trend, but a national one. Lawmakers nationwide are digging deeper to answer questions on social issues, criminal justice reform and the effectiveness of programs supporting these issues. They are complicated topics and take the efforts of multiple government and non-government organizations to answer—answers that often take years when lawmakers are trying to make policy decisions in real-time.
“I think historically in Alaska and elsewhere, criminal justice has not been very evidence-based,” Myrstol said. “So policies, like crime control, are developed on gut-feel, rather than sitting back and collecting the best data you can.”
For Myrstol, that’s where he believes AJiC is uniquely positioned, to not only provide research in a more timely manner but to help lawmakers make better, more informed decisions when creating policy that affects Alaskans statewide.
Building a platform
“What we’re really tackling head on this year is building out what we refer to as an ‘integrated justice data platform,” said Myrstol. The idea, he said, is that AJiC will serve as a repository for justice data that is routinely being collected by criminal justice agencies in Alaska.
These data, Myrstol explained, will be permanently housed within the new AJiC justice platform. Myrstol and his staff will use these data to take a comprehensive look at current programs, or help answer complicated questions lawmakers may have, regarding criminal justice policy.
In the past, Myrstol said that answering what was a seemingly simple policy question about a law or program’s effectiveness, took tremendous effort and was a process that could take years. What’s unique about AJiC’s role, is the center’s ability to quickly access data from different justice agencies and create more real-time reports, so policymakers are better informed and can make evidence-based decisions regarding criminal justice.
“The real innovation here is that the data from the different silos of the justice system will be in one place so we can integrate them,” said Myrstol. “That’s important because often times policymakers ask complicated questions that are difficult for any one entity to answer.”
Additionally, AJIC will be looking at other statewide organizational data, like healthcare or education, which Myrstol admits, does not seem like it is related to criminal justice, but often, the programs and policies within these organizations have direct implications for criminal justice. An example, Myrstol said, is Alaska’s juvenile justice division, which is under the Department of Health and Social Services. By looking more deeply into early development programs for troubled youth and evaluating their effectiveness, lawmakers can make better decisions on creating or updating programs to help keep youth out of the juvenile court system, and ultimately out of the adult criminal justice system altogether.
“Policy is being developed and implemented with an eye toward evidence at each stage,” Myrstol said. “So thinking about what programs we want to establish in criminal justice, healthcare or K-12 to higher education—how can we use data to inform what programs should be established?”
Policy-making paradigm shift
As criminal justice reform in Alaska and across the nation is moving toward a more evidence-based model of creating policy, Myrstol, Jessee and Rosay believe that AJiC’s contribution will become more important.
“The university is uniquely positioned to provide that substantive and technical expertise that the state needs, now more than ever, to inform public policy decisions,” said Myrstol.
Jessee echoes Myrstol’s sentiment saying that the establishment of AJiC is important because it is a statewide tool for policymakers and the public to make informed decisions on tough issues like criminal justice. Whether lawmakers are looking at crime rates in the city, programs aimed at helping troubled youth, or looking at domestic violence and sexual assault—AJiC will be able to provide timely, reliable and valid data that specifically speak to those policy challenges.
Stemming from the Choose Respect campaign, Jessee and Rosay helped put Justice Center data on the map for Alaska’s legislators, who realized the importance of being able to make informed, evidence-based decisions regarding policy. AJiC’s work in the future will continue to reflect independent, data-driven work that can be used statewide to make policy decisions regarding criminal justice reform.
“Our violence against women work is one example where we were able to show how the Justice Center can inform policy and policymaking,” said Rosay. “While we don’t advocate for specific bills or legislation—we can certainly inform legislators and the public about what strategies are effective and which are not.