(The City of Long Beach Innovation Team at work. Credit: The City of Long Beach Official Website)

The City of Long Beach Innovation Team is re-writing the playbook of city government with a focus on process, rather than one-shot outcomes. With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Long Beach, California hosts one of several innovation teams (or i-teams) in the U.S. which aim to develop fresh new approaches to age-old challenges of city government. The i-teams operate with the big-picture vision of a management consultancy, the iterative nimbleness of a software development team, and the problem-solving chops of a research lab. They are designers, researchers, public administrators, and data scientists.

The City of Long Beach Innovation Team’s Alma Castro presenting at MIT GOV/LAB.

At a recent MIT GOV/LAB seminar, Alma Castro, the Long Beach i-team’s Deputy Director, spoke about their latest work in transforming the city’s ‘criminal justice’ pipeline into a broader system of ‘justice’. Their product is not an online tool or a piece of legislation, but rather a way of doing things: a city-wide Justice Lab. The lab comprises a set of teams, policies, and procedures designed to connect high-risk individuals with resources suited to their specific needs, and to connect service providers with the right data to make better decisions for users.

The Long Beach i-team is re-imagining criminal justice as a dynamic public service centered around rehabilitation rather than incarceration. Instead of solely reducing police encounters, the Justice Lab targets different outcomes for different individuals—substance abuse, homelessness, mental health—on a case-by-case basis.

How do you implement a city-wide program like the Justice Lab? We highlight three specific takeaways from Alma’s talk.

Break down silos between disciplines and departments

Criminal justice is both complex and broad; no single disciplinary approach can offer the full solution, nor can a single city department fully tackle it alone.

In pursuing a multidisciplinary approach, the i-team brings a variety of technical skills and academic perspectives to the table. Their team includes a cultural anthropologist, a GIS researcher and an industrial designer translating to a multi-pronged approach to problem-solving. Developing the Justice Lab involved analyzing arrest and citation statistics to paint a landscape view of the problem, developing maps to visualize spatial patterns of arrests, and conducting qualitative interviews to fill in personal nuances often missing from quantitative data.

Between 2012 and 2017, few of the 5,000 violent crimes in Long Beach were committed by frequent offenders, who mostly committed low-level misdemeanors. Credit: Long Beach i-team via Alma Castro.

To make this possible, the i-team needed to link records across city departments, and worked to implement a city-wide Data Sharing Agreement. The result is a centralized Data Warehouse with information from the health, fire, police, city prosecutor and city development departments allowing front-line providers to use high-resolution data when assisting individuals navigating the justice system.

Justice is necessarily a multi-domain issue. Both the behind-the-scenes service developers and the front-line service providers need to work across departments and disciplines to provide solutions.

Engage stakeholders with empathy, not just data

The i-team found that in Long Beach, most repeat users of the justice system were not prone to committing violent crime, however many were in need of specific forms of rehabilitation. For them, incarceration was not the most effective endpoint.

To illustrate this, the i-team developed personas with descriptive back-stories (e.g. “Isaac, aged 37…”) that provided accurate and relatable representations of target users. Carefully designed infographics and maps also effectively translated the i-team’s deep research into presentable insights.

Example of a “persona” used to accurately represent a target justice system user through story-telling. Credit: Alma Castro

Ultimately, this human-centric, rather than data-centric, approach proved to be effective in helping stakeholders to better understand and empathize with the people who interact with justice system on a regular basis.

Establish a learning network

Innovation can be a team sport at the local, regional, and national levels. For example, when it comes to data sharing, rather than reinventing the wheel, cities can adopt a common data transfer protocol or sync with an existing national data repository. Additionally, regional partnerships can help cities disseminate good ideas to other contextually similar cities, plug into university talent pools, and institutionalize tried-and-tested governance practices. Embedded in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ network of city government entrepreneurs, the Long Beach i-team is well-equipped to do all three.

The story of the Long Beach Justice Lab is one of vision and design: re-envisioning a punitive process as a public service and redesigning it with cross-disciplinary expertise and multi-stakeholder input. The net output is a justice system that aims to provide more options for its users than a police citation or jail booking. Research* by MIT Professor Ariel White suggests why such a systemic shift might be valuable: incarceration can result in large-scale voter demobilization particularly for racial minorities who are more frequently arrested to begin with. For such individuals, the Long Beach i-team’s “justice-as-service-delivery” model may both provide effective rehabilitation and bolster political participation.

*See Ariel White’s working paper “Misdemeanor Disenfranchisement? The demobilizing effects of brief jail spells on potential voters”