New tech for prison reform spreads to 11 states
A new non-profit called Recidiviz is using data technology to reduce the size of the U.S. criminal justice system. The bi-coastal company (SF and NYC) is currently working with 11 states to improve their systems and, so far, has helped remove nearly 69,000 people — ones left floundering in jail or on parole when they should have been released.
“The root cause is fragmentation,” says Clementine Jacoby, 31, a software engineer who worked at Google before co-founding Recidiviz in 2019. In the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. built a series of disconnected data systems, and this patchwork is still being used by criminal justice authorities today. It requires parole officers to manually calculate release dates, leading to errors in many cases. “[They] have done everything they need to do to earn their release, but they're still stuck in the system,” Jacoby says.
Recidiviz has built a platform that connects the different databases, with the goal of identifying people who are already qualified for release but remain behind bars or on supervision. “Think of Recidiviz like Google Maps,” says Jacoby, who worked on Maps when she was at the tech giant. Google Maps takes in data from different sources – satellite images, street maps, local business data — and organizes it into one easy view. “Recidiviz does something similar with criminal justice data,” Jacoby explains, “making it easy to identify people eligible to come home or to move to less intensive levels of supervision.”
People like Jacoby’s uncle. His experience with incarceration is what inspired her passion for criminal justice reform in the first place.
The problems are vast
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world — 2 million people according to the watchdog group, Prison Policy Initiative — at a cost of $182 billion a year. The numbers could be a lot lower if not for an array of problems including inaccurate sentencing calculations, flawed algorithms and parole violations laws.
To determine eligibility for release, the current system requires corrections officers to check 21 different requirements spread across five different databases for each of the 90 to 100 people under their supervision. These manual calculations are time prohibitive, says Jacoby, and fall victim to human error.
In addition, Recidiviz found that policies aimed at helping to reduce the prison population don’t always work correctly. A key example is time off for good behavior laws that allow inmates to earn one day off for every 30 days of good behavior. Some states' data systems are built to calculate time off as one day per month of good behavior, rather than per day. Over the course of a decade-long sentence, Jacoby says these miscalculations can lead to a huge discrepancy in the calculated release data and the actual release date.
Commercial algorithm-based software systems for risk assessment continue to be widely used in the criminal justice system, even though a 2018 study published in Science Advances exposed their limitations. After the study went viral, it took three years for the Justice Department to issue a report on their own flawed algorithms used to reduce the federal prison population as part of the 2018 First Step Act. The program, it was determined, overestimated the risk of putting inmates of color into early-release programs.
Despite its name, Recidiviz does not build these types of algorithms for predicting recidivism, or whether someone will commit another crime after being released from prison. Rather, Jacoby says the company’s "descriptive analytics” approach is specifically intended to weed out incarceration inequalities and avoid algorithmic pitfalls.
Parole violation laws
Research shows that 350,000 people a year — about a quarter of the total prison population — are sent back not because they’ve committed another crime, but because they’ve broken a specific rule of their probation. “Things that wouldn't send you or I to prison, but would send someone on parole,” such as crossing county lines or being in the presence of alcohol when they shouldn’t be, are inflating the prison population, says Jacoby.
It’s personal for the co-founder and CEO
“I grew up with an uncle who went into the prison system,” Jacoby says. At 19, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for a non-violent crime. A few months after being released from jail, he was sent back for a non-violent parole violation.
“For my family, the fact that one in four prison admissions are driven not by a crime but by someone who's broken a rule on probation and parole was really profound because that happened to my uncle,” Jacoby says. The experience led her to begin studying criminal justice in high school, then college. She continued her dive into how the criminal justice system works as part of her Passion Project while at Google, a program that allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time on pro-bono work. Two colleagues whose family members had also been stuck in the system joined her.
As part of the project, Jacoby interviewed hundreds of people involved in the criminal justice system. “Those on the right, those on the left, agreed that bad data was slowing down reform,” she says. Their research brought them to North Dakota where they began to understand the root of the problem. The corrections department is making “huge, consequential decisions every day [without] … the data,” Jacoby says. In a new video by Recidiviz not yet released, Jacoby recounts her exchange with the state’s director of corrections who told her, “‘It’s not that we have the data and we just don’t know how to make it public; we don’t have the information you think we have.'"
A mock-up (with fake data) of the types of dashboards and insights that Recidiviz provides to state governments.
As a software engineer, Jacoby says the comment made no sense to her — until she witnessed it first-hand. “We spent a lot of time driving around in cars with corrections directors and parole officers watching them use these incredibly taxing, frankly terrible, old data systems,” Jacoby says.
As they weeded through thousands of files — some computerized, some on paper — they unearthed the consequences of bad data: Hundreds of people in prison well past their release date and thousands more whose release from parole was delayed because of minor paperwork issues. They found individuals stuck in parole because they hadn’t checked one last item off their eligibility list — like simply failing to provide their parole officer with a paystub. And, even when parolees advocated for themselves, the archaic system made it difficult for their parole officers to confirm their eligibility, so they remained in the system. Jacoby and her team also unpacked specific policies that drive racial disparities — such as fines and fees.
It’s more than a trivial technical challenge to bring the incomplete, fragmented data onto a 21st century data platform. It takes months for Recidiviz to sift through a state’s information systems to connect databases “with the goal of tracking a person all the way through their journey and find out what’s working for 18- to 25-year-old men, what’s working for new mothers,” explains Jacoby in the video.
TED Talk: How bad data traps people in the U.S. justice system
TED Fellow Clementine Jacoby's TED Talk went live on Jan. 13. It describes how we can fix bad data in the criminal justice system, "bringing thousands of people home, reducing costs and improving public safety along the way."
Clementine Jacoby • TED2022
Ojmarrh Mitchell, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, who is not involved with the company, says what Recidiviz is doing is “remarkable.” His perspective goes beyond academic analysis. In his pre-academic years, Mitchell was a probation officer, working within the framework of the “well known, but invisible” information sharing issues that plague criminal justice departments. The flexibility of Recidiviz’s approach is what makes it especially innovative, he says. “They identify the specific gaps in each jurisdiction and tailor a solution for that jurisdiction.”
On the downside, the process used by Recidiviz is “a bit opaque,” Mitchell says, with few details available on how Recidiviz designs its tools and tracks outcomes. By sharing more information about how its actions lead to progress in a given jurisdiction, Recidiviz could help reformers in other places figure out which programs have the best potential to work well.
The eleven states in which Recidiviz is working include California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. And a pilot program launched last year in Idaho, if scaled nationally, with could reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system by a quarter of a million people, Jacoby says. As part of the pilot, rather than relying on manual calculations, Recidiviz is equipping leaders and the probation officers with actionable information with a few clicks of an app that Recidiviz built.
Mitchell is disappointed that there’s even the need for Recidiviz. “This is a problem that government agencies have a responsibility to address,” he says. “But they haven’t.” For one company to come along and fill such a large gap is “remarkable.”
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021
Scientists want the salamander's secret: how they regenerate tissue
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.