Design Challenge Series Part I: Public Safety in Philadelphia

New ideas are a pillar of any tech company. If you want to produce innovative work, your employees have to be in an environment where they feel free to be creative and explore new concepts.

We came up with a challenge week for our design team to see what ideas they could come up with. The premise was simple. Designers participated in a short sprint where small teams would focus on complex issues facing society. The teams had just four days to define their problem and create a solution to present back to the company.

Our challenge week centered around one question:

“If you could attempt to solve any problem, what would you choose?”

We thought about the issues that mattered to us. Because we love being part of our community, we settled on the theme of social good. We created three briefs focusing on complex issues facing society, and assigned a small team to each.

You’ll learn about the the results of this challenge in a three-part series, starting with the first brief:

Design Challenge Brief 1: “How might we use design and technology to improve public safety in Philadelphia?”

So, why focus on public safety? Recent polling shows that public safety is the biggest issue that Philadelphia residents feel the city is facing.

Public safety is on the mind of nearly every city resident. Despite recent reports that 2016 was Philadelphia’s least violent year since 1979, American cities as a whole have experienced an increase in violent crime.

When fear of crime is on the rise, it isn’t unusual for the public to turn to the police and demand more patrolling and arrests. This is often an ineffective solution. Incarceration is particularly ineffective with certain crimes like drug offenses and youth crimes (many of which are committed in groups).

There’s the added issue of prison overcrowding. A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office predicted that overcrowding would climb to more than 45% above the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) maximum capacity by 2018. Sending more people to prison would add stress to an already overtaxed system.

Many offenders will spend most of the case lifecycle in prison because they’re unable to afford bail. This creates a litany of financial, personal, and job-related problems for the offender.

If they’re found guilty, they face unique challenges once they’re released. It’s estimated that 73% of female and 55% of male inmates in state prisons have at least one mental health problem. Once they’re released many struggle to find adequate mental health care and go untreated.

Many former inmates struggle to find steady employment and housing. Since they’re unable to meet their basic needs because they lack shelter and employment, some former prisoners re-offend.

Overall, recidivism rates are very high. According to the National Institute of Justice, about two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. Within five years of release, around three-quarters (76.6%) of released prisoners are rearrested. Of those prisoners who did re-offend, 56.7% are arrested by the end of the first year.

The group asked themselves what kind of individual is likely to get swept up in the criminal justice system. Meet their provisional persona: Eric Stubbs.

After taking time to get to know Eric, they thought about what his journey through the legal system would look like.

The group looked for the moment where they might be able to design the most impactful solution after reviewing this journey. Meet their provisional persona: Ruthy Smith, a public defender.

Public defenders are an essential part of the criminal justice system, but are often overworked, underpaid, and not supplied with the resources needed to do their jobs well. The average public defender can have as many as 200 active cases at any given time, and have little time to spend on them.

During these moments in the public defender’s journey, Ruthy meets with a judge and hears which cases she will be assigned. She’ll then work on a plea bargain for the offender, considering their criminal history and severity of the crime committed. Usually the public defender will reach a decision about how the offender should plead before they even meet.

It’s clear that the average public defender is overworked, and that the case of a young man like Eric’s most likely wouldn’t get the attention it needs. Is there a way to equip Ruthy with the tools she would need to make a difference in people’s lives?

The group imagined an outreach program, 3rd Chance, that would target people looking for a way out of the prison cycle and give them support for the future. Unlike other common second-chance programs for offenders, the group wanted to target people that are more deeply entangled in the system.

While meeting with a judge, Ruthy identifies an individual with the potential to break out of the prison cycle. This person must have a low bail amount, cannot have committed a violent crime, and must have a previous record.

Ruthy can only nominate a small number of people each year for this program. This will help keep the cost of the program down, and make her in-person meeting time meaningful.

The offender learns that the program will:

• Post their bail

• Cover half of their bills while they’re in prison

• Provide them with a personal phone upon release with preloaded applications and free data for one year
When Eric is released from jail, he receives a package that contains his personal phone and a 3rd Chance ID card. The group chose a low-cost Nokia model because of its durability, affordability, and ability to easily browse the web. Preloaded apps would help with therapy, job placement, and provide journaling resources.

All Eric has to do is log his activity (job applications, location, etc.) every week.

Some states have done things to assist the Ruthies of the world by capping caseloads and supplying better resources. The group that pursued this prompt didn’t think that the opportunity lies with helping Ruthy win cases, which would add time to the process and put an even greater stress on the system. Instead, the opportunity lies with empowering an idealistic individual with purpose so they can improve their lives.

These quotes from former inmates can highlight just how helpful a program like 3rd Chance can be.

“When you get out of jail, nobody wants to give you a job. They look and judge you. You automatically feel… it’s like a psychological disorder.”
Joe, 22

“The system doesn’t help the needy. The system doesn’t catch the bad guys. It catches the little guys, who get caught up in the web of the criminal justice system, and it squeezes them ’til their life is just gone.“
Maya, 27

“Jail made me think, okay, I need to change, I do not want to come back to this place. But in reality, you come out of jail – unless your mom or somebody you talked to in jail has got a plan waiting for you, you’re back right to square one and you’ve gotta do it yourself.“
John, 26

Eric now has hope for the future and is looking forward to being released from jail. Someone has taken a chance on him, even after a history of offenses.

The group estimated the initial cost to get the first year off the ground for 12 participants to be approximately $30,000. Compare that to what the city has in their overall budget, and it’s definitely feasible.

In our next post, you’ll see how one group tackled the issue of Poverty in Philadelphia.