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Should Local Government Be Run More Like Silicon Valley?

Laura Meixell, Shaunak Kashyap and Marcin Wichary in Louisville, Ky. They're volunteers with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Code for America (CfA). (Photos by David Kidd)
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Cities are contracting with Code for America -- what some call “the Peace Corps for geeks” -- in an effort to seed Silicon Valley virtues, such as creativity, speed and experimentation, in local government.

March 29, 2013 By

Mark Bolton has a problem. To be more precise, he has 250 problems. Bolton runs Louisville, Ky.’s metro jail system. Its main facility -- two aging structures joined by a pedestrian sky bridge -- is designed to hold 1,353 inmates. Another facility across town has another 440 beds. But on this particular day in early February, Bolton has 2,043 people behind bars. For weeks, he’s been adding cots to the barracks-style rooms that house most inmates. But the jail is so overcrowded that he’s now considering opening another wing of the facility, even though it’s not up to code.

“It’s actually illegal for us to open it, but I have to consider it,” he says. “[W]hat’s the worse of two evils, just packing them in here like sardines, or putting them in a section of the jail that we don’t want to put them in?”

Jails don’t fill themselves. Police, prosecutors and judges do. “A jail is like a rain barrel,” says Kim Allen, executive director of Louisville’s Metro Criminal Justice Commission. “If you want to change the water level, you’ve either got to put less in or let more out.” But while everyone in Louisville knows the barrel is overflowing, they’ve had a hard time adjusting the taps.

One of the biggest problems is sharing information. Louisville has a long history of coordinating criminal justice initiatives, including what may be the oldest multiagency criminal justice commission in the country. Sharing information electronically, though, is a different story. The courts’ computer systems are administered by the state; the jail’s by the city; and then there are the systems used by Louisville’s various prosecutors, the public defender’s office and the police department. Although significant progress has been made in linking up the courts and law enforcement, the overall system is still far from optimal. Louisville’s 40 elected judges use their computer system in different ways to different degrees. Unnecessary duplication of forms is rife. Prisoners stay in jail for roughly 20 days on average before going to trial, even though many are there for nonviolent offenses. Some are there for failing to appear in court on bench warrants -- warrants they didn’t even know about. Louisville doesn’t have the technology to provide public access to its criminal justice system. As a result, it often communicates with offenders by arresting them.

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