Working at the Intersection of Data and Policy

A conversation with Maria McKee, Director of Research and Analytics at the Office of the San Francisco District Attorney

Last year, Code for America launched a first-of-its-kind partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to automatically clear or reduce criminal convictions for those eligible for relief under Proposition 64 (marijuana legalization in the State of California). When we heard that DA George Gascón planned to retroactively apply Prop 64 to all marijuana offenses in San Francisco dating back to 1975, we offered our assistance and our Clear My Record technology (which until then had been an opt-in service) to make the process faster, less expensive, and more efficient. We believe that contact with the criminal justice system should not be a life sentence, and that clearing and reducing records removes a significant barrier to work, education, and housing. So jumping at the chance to partner was a no-brainer.

One of our key partners in this effort was Maria McKee. Maria is the DA’s Office’s Director of Research and Analytics; she holds a degree in public policy and spends her days analyzing sensitive criminal justice data. She describes herself not as a data scientist, but a policy analyst with a natural affinity for data. She says she feels fortunate to work for a District Attorney who is “pro-research, pro-data, and pro-technology.” Maria was instrumental in helping us leverage technology to fulfill the promise of record clearance laws and clear more than 8,000 records and achieve record clearance at scale for the first time in California and nationwide.

At Code for America, we talk a lot about the importance of being user-centered and data-driven not just in building tech, but in shaping policy. Maria is a public servant who sees everyday the enormous potential the intersection of tech and policy can bring to the criminal justice system. We asked Maria a few questions about how she got to where she is now, and the crucial role that data has to play in advancing criminal justice reform.

What is your background? How did you end up working in criminal justice, and in data specifically?

While I was at the Goldman School of Public Policy from 2006–2008, the California prison crisis reached its peak, and I was deeply troubled by the statistics regarding racial disparities in the criminal justice system — particularly between white and African-American men — which I viewed as both intrinsically undemocratic and immoral. As Michelle Alexander would later write, when reading those statistics, it was apparent to me that the U.S. hadn’t ended slavery and Jim Crow, it had replaced them. I became very passionate about criminal justice policy and working to address human rights abuses in my home state.

As part of my master’s thesis, I got my first government job with the San Francisco Adult Probation Department, analyzing recidivism and developing intervention recommendations. There, I had the opportunity to work with Jeanne Woodford, one of the pioneers of criminal justice reform in California, and learn about her experience as a leader changing the system from within. Working at the Hall of Justice cemented for me both how broken our criminal justice system is and how critically important it is to all of society to fix it.

That job opened the door to a position as the Policy & Program Analyst for the Collaborative Courts Division at the San Francisco Superior Court. In large part, Collaborative Courts (one of the first waves of alternatives to the traditional criminal process, including Drug Courts and Behavioral Health Courts, that focus on addressing treatment and service needs to reduce recidivism) are funded by federal grants. Grants are all about performance measures, which meant that much of my job was dedicated to designing databases, and collecting and analyzing data. Additionally, at that moment in criminal justice policy, there was a huge push towards evidence-based and data-driven practice. In my mind, these are common sense approaches, and I advanced them in San Francisco’s Collaborative Courts Division.

“I thought that I might have the opportunity to advance change to a greater degree from within than from the outside.”

In 2009, under the leadership of my friend and mentor, Tomiquia Moss (now CEO of Hamilton Families), San Francisco opened the Community Justice Center in the Tenderloin. The Community Justice Center, or CJC, is a collaborative court for an entire neighborhood, and I viewed it as the largest and most important criminal justice reform in San Francisco in decades. At an event celebrating the CJC’s achievements in 2011, I heard the newly appointed District Attorney, George Gascón, speak and I knew immediately that I wanted to work for him. DA Gascón said what I had never heard a law enforcement leader say before: The War on Drugs was a failure. We had to stop repeating the mistakes of the past which had caused so much harm, and embrace evidence-based alternatives like the Community Justice Center to help people exit the criminal justice system.

In 2012, I was thrilled to join the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Throughout his career, DA Gascón has embraced innovation, technology, and data, and within two years, he tasked me with managing several of his data-driven initiatives, including the office’s performance measurement program, DA Stat; the Crime Strategies Unit, a multi-disciplinary unit of prosecutors, investigators and analysts; and collaborations with independent researchers.

What drew you to public service?

Prior to graduate school, I worked for non-profits, where I saw the essential role that non-governmental organizations play in advancing social justice and change. But I was also frustrated by how much energy and resources were devoted, by necessity, to fundraising just to get the job done. After several years working in the non-profit sector, I thought that it would be interesting to work in government, and I also thought that I might have the opportunity to advance change to a greater degree from within than from the outside.

During my 10 years working in San Francisco, that has proven to be true — particularly working for District Attorney Gascón, who I would argue is the most progressive prosecutor in the country, and who has pioneered many of the most important criminal justice reforms in the state and the country (including marijuana record clearance). I am very proud to work for the DA and as a public servant.

At the same time, I am cognizant of and struggle with the fact that I work within the very system that I want to change. I am complicit in the harms that this system inflicts on our society, and particularly on communities of color, as well as on the most marginalized among us, such as individuals struggling with poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. It is clearer than ever to me that engendering the change we need to see in the criminal justice system will require dedicated actors both within and outside of the government.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka announce the clearance of over 8,000 marijuana convictions through the automatic record clearance pilot

How did your job change with the passage of Proposition 64?

Prop 64 represented the first time that my particular knowledge of data and criminal justice data systems at the local and state level were central to my office’s implementation of a law. What’s more, our office learned a lot through our data-driven approach to Prop 64 implementation and our collaboration with Code for America.

This work inspired DA Gascón to collaborate with Assemblymember Ting on AB 1076 — which will automate existing record clearance laws. In crafting AB 1076, we were very focused on ensuring that the law was written to facilitate the implementation approach that we envision, because as Code for America says, “Justice is getting the implementation right.”

“[Clear My Record] represented an amazing opportunity to leverage resources and skills that are not present within the system to advance systematic change.”

With AB 1076, DA Gascón has proposed the most ambitious record clearance legislation in the United States, but it is also very pragmatic because it is grounded in a practical understanding of the records and systems involved.

Members of the Clear My Record engineering team watch DA Gascón and Jennifer Pahlka’s announcement

Can you describe your partnership with the Clear My Record team?

In January 2018, DA Gascón was the first prosecutor in the country to announce that he would proactively review and clear marijuana convictions. Shortly thereafter, Code for America reached out to offer their services to support this effort. This offer represented an amazing opportunity to leverage resources and skills that are not present within the system to advance systematic change.

Overall, it has been a fantastic partnership for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, for the field of record clearance, and for me! When I first met with the Clear My Record team, I felt like I was speaking with kindred spirits. I often describe my role as being a translator between academics and law enforcement professionals — between the technical and the practical, the theoretical and the actual. The Clear My Record team also speaks this language that straddles the digital and the civic arenas (and they also speak a lot of programming languages that I don’t speak!)

“When we make the system more efficient, we make the system work better for all of us.”

As someone who works at the intersection of data and policy, what do you think people should know about efficiency and reform?

Efficiency is reform! By being outdated and inefficient, the criminal justice system perpetuates injustice. You often hear criminal justice agencies push against reform because of technological barriers. This argument makes no sense to me. Even those who are not driven by a social justice agenda should be interested in making the criminal justice system more efficient (indeed, that’s why there is so much conservative support for criminal justice reform). It’s a win/win. When we make the system more efficient, we make the system work better for all of us, including victims of crime. I believe there is an essential role for law enforcement in our society, and I believe that we must ensure that role is exercised with integrity, justice, and compassion — and technology and data help us get there.

Want to continue the conversation? Maria will be a panelist at a breakout session on the state of criminal justice data at this year’s Code for America Summit.

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