Recidiviz x KidsMates
By Joshua Martoma, Age 15
Today, KidsMates is exploring the ways in which technology can drive positive change in criminal justice reform. Our guest is Andrew Warren, co-founder and Head of Product at Recidiviz. Recidiviz is a social nonprofit seeking a “smaller, fairer” prison system. It’s also a tech startup pioneering “modern data infrastructure and thoughtful product design” to reform federal and state prison regulations.
Andrew has an enviable tech background. He previously worked at Google, WeWork, and Sidewalk Labs in key product leadership positions. Andrew could have gone anywhere in tech after being at those institutions but chose a social mission based on childhood experiences with justice-involved individuals and a belief that everyone can help make a difference. Keep reading, and you’ll learn more about Andrew’s awesome work.
Recidiviz’s basic software helps prisons, parole boards, and probation sort through fragmented spreadsheets and databases to identify ways that the justice system can help move people safely back into their communities. Recidiviz also offers a forecasting tool (called “Spark”) popular with activists to help forecast the effects of potential policy changes. One Recidiviz study, for example, estimates $78-87 billion in lost GDP through the unemployment of justice-involved individuals after incarceration; it describes how children and families of affected individuals are the hardest hit by such practices. Other Recidiviz studies have analyzed the impact of eliminating mandatory minimums, reducing probation periods, and reclassifying offenses.
Andrew and his co-founders started Recidiviz as an internal project at Google before spinning out on their own through outside funding. Their list of grant supporters is as diverse as the personalities inside. Three factors appear to be driving the increased demand for Recidiviz’s services in recent months. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the huge safety problems of prison overcrowding. Second, increased public support for racial and social justice are forcing criminal justice officials to reexamine how their policies contribute to structural racism and social inequities. Third, states are facing increasing budgetary pressures leading to downward pressure on correction costs. The Recidiviz team sees a world in which less government and taxpayer money is spent on prisons and, instead, used to address root problems in education, mental health and substance abuse problems. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that Andrew and his teammates seem more than prepared to address. Please join me in welcoming our guest, Mr. Andrew Warren.
Joshua: Hello, Andrew. Thank you for joining KidsMates today for this virtual conversation. We’re so excited to learn more about what you’ve been up to. Let’s start by discussing what got you involved with the criminal justice system and Recidiviz? What’s your origin story?
Andrew: Hi, Joshua. Criminal justice was a fact of life growing up. I had a cousin who went to prison pretty young and spent a long time there. I had an uncle who ended up passing away because of drug use, and another uncle with pretty significant mental health issues that sometimes made him threaten my cousins and family. All of this was hard for my parents to explain to me and my sisters when we were little.
I mention drugs and mental health alongside prison because, in the US, we tend to lump crime, drugs, and mental health issues together as the same problem. Everyone gets prison when a lot of them really need understanding and treatment. I saw up-close what happens when we focus on punishment instead of helping people heal.
The other side of the story is my interest in technology. I studied computer science in college and was working on tech for cities (at Sidewalk Labs, Google, and WeWork) when two friends said they were thinking about working on the justice system. “Republicans and Democrats both want to lower the number of people in prison, but there isn’t much data on what’s working and what isn’t. Maybe we can help?”
We started looking into it and writing some programs that might help stitch together data from different places. We wanted to give people running the system a complete picture - how are people getting stuck in prison and why? And what can they do about it? We soon found that other people wanted to help us fix these problems too. Recidiviz is a 40-person non-profit now, and we’re already working with seven states and continuing to grow.
Joshua: You’ve definitely focused around an ambitious goal. What is the most important thing you or Recidiviz has done in the last year?
Andrew: Last March, just as the pandemic was starting to spread in the United States, some of our funders pulled back because the stock market was spiraling. Meanwhile, our own office had shut down, and many of our team members were scared for themselves and their families. We were worried how to best continue our work.
While we were trying to figure out what COVID-19 meant for us, we noticed that Departments of Corrections (the government agencies who run prisons and parole) were having the same urgent discussions. We help a lot of them with data, so several asked us “What are other states doing? What will happen in our prisons if COVID-19 gets in?”
Setting aside some of our main work, we started trying to understand how COVID-19 spreads in small spaces. We worked with experts at the medical schools at Yale, Stanford, and Harvard to figure out what the best available data showed. The answers were really worrying - a lot of prisons are crowded, and the numbers showed that COVID would spread quickly. This would be bad for people living in prisons, working in prisons, and communities around the prison, which would lose more hospital beds to support the spread of disease.
We shared the model with government agencies to help them understand what was likely to happen. We released it on a Monday; by Tuesday, 49 of the 50 states had downloaded and started looking at it. Through all of last summer, our team (and a lot of wonderful volunteers from Google.org and US Digital Response) put in really long hours to improve our model as we learned more about the disease, even as their own family members got COVID and became sick. The model helped government agencies understand and make a strong case for reducing the number of people in prison, and sending them back healthy to their families and children. The states we worked most with ended up recommending over 44,000 early releases during the pandemic.
Joshua: That’s truly amazing! I’m sure it wasn’t easy for you or any of your coworkers during the pandemic. But it’s certainly impressive that you were able to get almost every state to focus on the problems in prison during a national coronavirus outbreak. As I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of mistrust about how tech is used against incarcerated people. What don’t people understand about Recividiz specifically, or your other projects, that you would like them to know?
Andrew: I think a lot of us hope that technology can solve the big problems like climate change, poverty, or mass incarceration. But the truth is, these problems are mostly based in our culture and values - people wouldn’t be homeless if the rest of us wanted to pitch in to help provide affordable homes; the climate would be more stable if we thought it was important enough to lower pollution; prisons wouldn’t be so full (especially of people who are Black and Hispanic) if we had an honest conversation about how we think about crime, mental health, drugs, and race in the United States. The good news is, culture change is possible too - and a lot easier for everyone to help within their own communities.
I want more people to understand that technology can help - but it can only help. All of us, our families and communities, have to want the right things first.
Joshua: Yes, intentions matter a lot, but it’s so hard to gauge intentions. Mostly people look at actions and try to interpret intentions, but even that approach can be based on faulty assumptions or biases. It also ignores the social network in which we live. As I think of all the places you’ve worked -- Google says “Don’t be evil”; WeWork wants individuals to “become part of the greater ‘we’”; and Sidewalk Labs says “We Rise and Fall Together” -- I’m reminded that incarcerated people are not just isolated individuals either. They have families, children, husbands, and wives, who are also victims in this carceral process. What do you think the world should know about children or families supporting a justice-involved individual?
Andrew: That they’re brave and just incredibly impressive - not because they want to be but because they have to be. The rest of us need to be brave enough to re-think whether and how the justice system works. If we help people and families instead of punishing them, we can collectively do a lot of good.
Joshua: Do you have any specific tips for children coping with the adversity of an imprisoned family member?
Andrew: You're not alone. Many other families are going through this too. If you have an adult in your life you can trust, talk to them about how you feel.
I also think often about what Mr. Rogers had to say in his later years - both for kids in challenging situations like these, and for the adults in their lives as well.
Joshua: Mr. Rogers. I can see that, even though I must confess that Mr. Rogers was a little before my time (smiling). Has anyone more recent influenced your thoughts on incarceration and how?
Andrew: On the one hand, I’ve found books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Marc Howard’s Unusually Cruel to be helpful in understanding how the system became the way it is, and why it’s difficult to change. These are long, complex books that are more academic. For younger kids, the books Visiting Day and Far Apart, Close in Heart are both great.
However, books are no replacement for talking to people in the system. I've spoken with people in prisons, on parole or probation, as well as parole officers and directors of correction. The system impacts people and communities on a personal level - to really understand what’s happening, it's important to listen to them.
Joshua: It seems like you’ve really thought about these issues quite a lot. So, my last question is about your advice for others who are similarly motivated to make a change. If you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference in the world, what would you say?
Andrew: Find good friends...ones who you like to spend a lot of time with, ones who have good ideas and interesting conversations that make you think, and most of all who want to make a difference in the world too.
Making a difference is a long road, but it’s a lot better with friends.
Joshua: Thank you, Andrew. Those are great thoughts for us to reflect on and a perfect place to pause the conversation. You can learn a lot more about this groundbreaking organization at Recidiviz.