Innovating the criminal justice system

Jessie Smith at the School of Government launched the school’s Innovation Lab to promote a fair and effective criminal justice system, public safety and economic prosperity.

Jessica Smith stands against a wall.

Jessie Smith, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor at the School of Government, launched the school’s Innovation Lab to promote a fair and effective criminal justice system, public safety and economic prosperity.

We caught up with Smith to learn more about the Innovation Lab.

What is the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab?

The Innovation Lab seeks to promote a fair and effective criminal justice system, public safety and economic prosperity. It does this by engaging a broad range of stakeholders to examine the criminal justice system through an evidence-based perspective and promoting the use of a rigorous evidence-based approach to criminal justice policy.

How did the idea for the lab originate?

In 2017, the state legislature reformed the state’s juvenile justice system. Specifically, the legislature raised North Carolina’s juvenile age ensuring that, except in the most serious cases, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit acts that would be a crime if committed by an adult, go through the state’s rehabilitative juvenile system as opposed to the adult criminal justice system. The central features of that legislation came directly from an evidence-based proposal from North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin’s North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice. That report concluded that the change would promote fairness, public safety and economic prosperity. As the Commission’s appointed reporter, I was deeply involved with that reform; I had a front row seat to see bipartisan evidence-based criminal justice reform in action. That and related experiences helped me formulate the idea for the Innovation Lab.

Why is the Lab needed in North Carolina?

I have been working in North Carolina’s criminal justice system for well over 20 years. I have learned that to solve pressing problems in the system, stakeholders need to partner with others, such as those in the school and mental health systems and local and state governments. Currently no neutral, trusted entity exists in North Carolina to bring together these stakeholders to solve complex criminal justice issues. Additionally, much of the way justice is administered in North Carolina is unchanged from decades past. North Carolina is missing opportunities created by the digital and technological revolution to use new tools to test assumptions underlying criminal justice policy and implement and assess data-driven reforms. In a time of bipartisan support for evidence-based reform, the Innovation Lab’s approach holds great promise.

What is an example of a project that the lab might implement?

Projects already are underway. For example, I am currently working with stakeholders statewide on bail reform. At events and meetings, I am educating stakeholders about the problems with our current system and the range of options for reform. I also facilitate meetings among stakeholders to help them develop consensus agreements to pilot reforms. And I am working to ensure that those reforms are rigorously evaluated to inform evidence-based policy decisions.

What is your long-term hope for the lab and the work it will do?

I want the Innovation Lab to support evidence-based criminal justice policy throughout the entire system, from front-end issues like bail reform to back-end issues like fines and fees. I want the lab to be the place for education, innovation, research and reform.

How does your work, both with the Innovation Lab and the School of Government in general, support the University’s mission?

A core part of UNC’s mission is to extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the state. North Carolina’s criminal justice system impacts not just defendants and victims, but also citizens, communities, state and local government, businesses and North Carolina’s economy. By seeking to improve the state’s criminal justice system, the lab’s work tightly aligns with the University’s mission to enhance the quality of life for all North Carolinians.