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How Prosecutors Can Better Address the Needs of Frequent Utilizers

A new paper from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s Executive Session outlines how prosecutors can harness the power of social systems and public resources to make a difference.

In this 2017 photo, Hil Kaman walks near a homeless encampment adjacent to the site of a planned low-barrier permanent supportive housing project. Kaman is a former prosecutor who became the city's public health and safety director in 2016. (The Associated Press/Ted S. Warren)

Social systems such as criminal justice, health, and housing traditionally exist in silos and operate on an event-by-event basis,” with little coordination between them about how to address the overlapping populations they serve. For those who cycle between these systems, often referred to as frequent utilizers,” these stays rarely lead to adequate care or address long-term needs and can leave individuals worse off than when they entered. In fact, for many who are arrested and charged, a combination of challenges – including mental illness, substance use, poverty, and trauma – can lead to frequent stays in the local jail, emergency room, and homeless shelter. Not only do jurisdictions spend disproportionately high amounts of public funds on frequent utilizers, but they have little to show for it, as frequent utilizers’ consistent cycling demonstrates they aren’t getting the help they need to address root problems.

A new paper from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution’s Executive Session, co-authored by Jeremy Travis (Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice, Arnold Ventures), John J. Choi (County Attorney, Ramsey County, Minn.), Bob Gualtieri (Sheriff, Pinellas County, Florida), and Allison Goldberg (Policy Advisor, Institute for Innovation in Prosecution) outlines how prosecutors can harness the power of other social systems and public resources to better address the needs of frequent utilizers, without further extending the reach of the criminal justice system. 

Here are three ways: 

1. Respond differently when someone has a record of frequent interactions with the justice system

When prosecutors weigh charges and bail recommendations, they typically consider a person’s rap sheet, including how many prior interactions that person had with the criminal justice system. Frequent interactions are generally considered signs of failure and rationale for higher bail and harsher punishment. Instead, prosecutors should understand that frequent interactions with the criminal justice system may demonstrate a failure on the part of the criminal justice system and other social service agencies to support desistance and well being. Rather than continuing to levy escalating punitive sanctions against individuals who cycle in and out of jails and courts, prosecutors have an opportunity to use the tools at their disposal to identify patterns that cause people to enter the justice system. They can work with other public agencies to create solutions that interrupt these patterns and get individuals out of the system.

2. Become more data-driven and community-centered

Prosecutors should look beyond their traditional role of case processing and embrace their role as public officials with the power to convene and problem solve. Combining and analyzing data from across previously siloed social systems could allow prosecutors to use the insight of the communities they serve to innovate initiatives that better meet the needs of frequent utilizers. For example, if prosecutors were able to analyze emergency department, jail, and homeless shelter data, they would be able to discern whether someone is experiencing mental illness, physical health, and/​or homelessness issues.

They could also collect and analyze data on their office’s case intake to identify people who may be driving their caseloads. Such analysis may signal a larger pattern within their jurisdiction that deserves attention beyond the criminal justice system. Combining anonymized data across systems, rather than simply examining individual-level data, can also help accommodate privacy concerns while revealing potential overlap among populations within the criminal justice, health, and other systems. This creates opportunities for systems-level reform.

3. Define success in terms of prosecutorial problem-solving, individuals’ steps toward improvement, and a decrease in the number of frequent utilizers community-wide

A prosecutor’s efficacy is traditionally measured according to conviction rates and lengths of sentences imposed — metrics that tend to place value on whether prosecutors secure maximum charges and sentences. They pay little attention to whether prosecutors meet the needs of the individuals charged, their communities, or those impacted by their actions. Instead of focusing on punishment, prosecutors should find ways to use their power to solve problems in partnership with their communities, and in ways that recognize the human dignity of all those impacted by their decisions.

Relatedly, we should consider metrics of success for individuals beyond recidivism, which tracks setbacks rather than improvements. Considering how individuals respond to treatment or participate in community service, for example, can tell a more robust story of progress than merely focusing on failures, as defined by repeat interaction with the criminal justice system. These benchmarks of individual success are distinct from but connected to those of the prosecutor’s office. Metrics that reveal the ways in which individuals who are arrested and charged are taking steps toward stability more accurately measure the effectiveness of public safety efforts and the impacts of prosecutors’ decisions.

The intersection of individual success and prosecutorial effectiveness can also inform system-level success. For instance, by understanding baseline homelessness numbers in their community and then partnering with other social system stakeholders to provide housing and services to avoid criminal justice involvement, prosecutors can support and measure reductions in levels of homelessness, related quality of life crimes, and resources used. This scale considers costs, public safety, and individual-level services when measuring system-level efficacy at enhancing community wellbeing. 


Prosecutors and Frequent Utilizers

How can prosecutors better address the needs of people who frequently interact with the criminal justice and other social systems?

Read the paper