SIG hosts hackathon on criminal justice reform

Feb. 25, 2019, 12:41 a.m.

This Saturday, four Stanford students brought home $5,000 from the second annual Policy Hackathon, a data-driven policy innovation competition sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and Stanford in Government (SIG). This year’s hackathon revolved around “Criminal Justice Reform: Achieving Successful Reentry in California.”

Benjamin Wittenbrink ’21, Claire Dinshaw ’21, Jonathan Lipman ’21 and Antonia Hellman ’21 earned the top award for their proposal to use a state tax credit to reward employers who hire former inmates.

The team competed against 10 other groups of four or five students each. Around 45 Stanford students wore the policymaker hat for a day and pitched proposals to better re-integrate formerly incarcerated individuals to society. Each team also submitted technical tools, which ranged from Excel spreadsheets to data-analysis algorithms, and gave a five-minute presentation to an expert panel of judges.

Hackathon organizer and co-founder Michael Swerdlow ’20 highlighted the significance of this year’s hackathon theme.  

“Criminal justice reform and mass incarceration issues … affect millions of people every year,” Swerdlow said.

This year’s panel featured former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, San Joaquin County district attorney Tori Verber Salazar, manager of technology and program delivery for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Aly Tamboura and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and law professor Robert Weisberg.

Teams presented a diverse range of policy proposals to reform criminal justice. Some, like the winning team and one honorable-mention team, focused on increasing post-incarceration employment. Others sought to provide inmates with information about healthcare, job opportunities and parole, and to better inform members of the criminal justice system about strategic solutions to recidivism.

“We proposed a state-based tax credit targeted directly to the formerly incarcerated that would scale by county and also by ZIP code,” Wittenbrink, a member of the winning team, wrote in an email to The Daily.

The formula would determine the tax credit that employers in each county would receive for employing one former inmate, Hellman added.

The project aimed to “increase employment post-incarceration … and ultimately reduce recidivism and improve the lifestyle of formerly incarcerated people,” according to Lipman.

Lipman, a Daily staffer, said the judges were impressed by the practicality of the project.

“Sometimes boring policy is good policy, and this is one of those instances,” Lipman said. “I think a lot of the other projects were very exciting, but ours was a little bit more concrete and implementable.”

The four winners knew each other before the hackathon, but each member had a different reason for participating.

“Benji [Wittenbrink] and I had participated in the event last year,” Dinshaw, a Daily staffer, said. “I think it’s a great experience and a good way to better understand the practical consideration of creating effective public policy.”

“I was bombarded with emails for the event,” Hellman, a SIG member, wrote. “The prompt seemed intriguing, I am interested in politics and economics and I like a challenge.”

Lipman, on the other hand, said he was “not a public policy person” but had a background in computer science hackathons.

The competition was open to all undergraduate and co-term students. According to Swerdlow, hackathon participants had various levels of interest and skill. Some students had already worked in public defenders’ offices or district attorneys’ offices; others were just getting familiar with the “territory.” Yet all were welcome, as SIEPR provided literature in advance for participants to prepare for the competition.

Two teams received honorable mentions for their work.

Arjun Ramani ’21, Ayelet Drazen ’21, Lorenzo de la Puente ’21, Anshul Gupta ’21 and Vineet Edupuganti ’21 were awarded an honorable mention. The team created “an informational tool for members of the criminal justice system,” Ramani, a Daily staffer, said. This involved creating an algorithm which plotted the relationship between sentence length and likelihood of recidivism.

“I think that our approach was novel in that it was focused on one very specific thing –– sentence length –– and very much focused on a data-driven tool,” Drazen said in an interview with The Daily.  

The team drew inspiration from their current academic coursework in computer science. The idea was based on a project conducted by Maya Ziv and Alex Rejto which Ramani learned about in CS221: Artificial Intelligence: Principles and Techniques. Drazen also said she derived knowledge about applying algorithms to policymaking from CS181: Computers, Ethics and Public Policy.

After the hackathon, the team exchanged business cards with Tamboura, who presented the possibility of pitching the idea to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where they would collaborate with the program to refine the algorithm and potentially introduce the idea to the government, Ramani said.

The second honorable mention was awarded to Jeremiah Coleman ’21, Christian Giadolor ’21, Kyle Duchynski ’21 and Isaac Arocha ’21. Swerdlow said that the team’s proposal re-imagined the operation of prison labor.

The team proposed that inmates be paid higher wages, which could cover their cost of living while incarcerated as well as generate savings for community re-entry post-sentence.

“[The hackathon] gave me a better understanding of not only criminal justice but the research, creativity and teamwork needed to craft public policy,” Coleman said. “I realized crafting public policy could be in my future.”

Many other participants discovered a passion for public policy and found that the hackathon changed their perspectives on the public and societal issues.

“I think that at Stanford there is a sense of strong division from the outside world,” wrote Dinshaw, a member of the winning team. “We are rarely forced to consider how what we learn may be able to effectively improve our surrounding communities.”

Swerdlow founded the event in 2018 for this very reason, saying that many Stanford students “wanted to get more involved with policy … and would love to work on problems like these, get skills and connections and understand what a career in public service working on problems like these looks like.”

The inaugural SIEPR hackathon was held on May 5, 2018, and last year’s winning team focused on “identifying housing opportunity hotspots in the Bay Area.”

Since then, Swedlow said, SIEPR and SIG have worked to narrow the event’s theme.

“The topic this year was more focused, but still broad enough that we had a diverse showing of work products that came out of it,” he said.  

The organizers also worked to provide participants with assistance, and hired over a dozen pre-doctoral fellows to work with students on pitches and memos.

Lipman said the event provides “a great opportunity for people who have never stepped their feet in different modes of inquiry to do so … and just a great idea-generation [space] in general.” However, Lipman suggested that the organizers do more to encourage “outsiders” without much public policy experience to join.

The 2019 Policy Hackathon tackled an issue which to many students “presented one of the greatest moral crises for our country,” Swerdlow said.

To Swerdlow, the event is not only a competition, but an educational opportunity.

“I’ve seen … how much [criminal justice] systems shape people’s lives and how much they dictate what [they think] is possible and what they think about,” he said. “I thought [that] would resonate with students and from what I could tell it did.”


Contact Caroline Ghisolfi at ceg1998 ‘at’

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