Announcing the Program on Technology, Criminal Justice, and Civil Liberties

Lincoln is excited to announce a new program at the intersection of technology, criminal justice, and civil liberties. This new program will be led by Arthur Rizer, who is joining Lincoln Network’s policy team as Vice President for Technology, Criminal Justice, and Civil Liberties. Arthur brings considerable experience in this policy area, having been a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice, a police officer, a law professor, and an army lieutenant colonel (see his full bio here).

We believe there is a new wave of policy challenges arising at this intersection; between individual liberty, innovation, and our system of justice. Part of this entails the clash of old laws and institutional needs with new digital information systems. This includes law enforcement seeking access to encrypted communications, or looking for policy changes to help them combat harmful online content, including violent extremism, drugs, or human trafficking. Another part comes from the growing role of emerging technologies as tools in the criminal justice system itself, such as predictive policing, facial recognition, or algorithmic risk assessment. These, in particular, have profound implications for our civil liberties and democratic values, as we look to the alarming deployment of such technologies in countries like China.

Technology, when it comes to liberty and justice, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has tremendous potential to promote beneficial outcomes, such as removing barriers to reentry, supporting the restoration of family and community bonds, or promoting transparency and accountability in the system. On the other hand, emerging technologies like biometrics, electronic surveillance, and machine learning, pose unprecedented risks to a free and just society.

These challenges also come at a time when there is a growing consensus that America’s criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. The mindlessly tough-on-crime era of mandatory minimums and long prison sentences—which made America by far the global leader in incarceration—is slowly giving way to approaches that emphasize diversion and rehabilitation. Many conservatives embraced the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. Now President Joe Biden, once a proponent of harsher violent crime laws, has called for reducing sentences and increasing drug treatment. 

Thoughtful reformers on both sides of the aisle are concerned about how to effect change without compromising public safety, especially in the light of recent spikes in homicides (including around Lincoln’s headquarters in the Bay Area), and a devastating low clearance rate on violent crimes. Emerging technologies offer a new set of tools to solve these challenges, but also raise new risks. 

Indeed, the role of technology is often at the center of discussions about reform. For instance, for diversion and pretrial release, many reformers are looking to electronic monitoring, enhanced identity verification, and tech-assisted substance abuse testing as key to reducing jail and prison populations. 

Likewise, tech has upended the policy debates on crime and policing. George Floyd’s death likely would have gone unremarked if it hadn’t been for a bystander filming during those nine fatal minutes. Especially during the protests that followed this past summer, smartphones helped to shine a light on police brutality and misconduct.

There remains a visceral resistance to technology among some criminal justice reformers, who are concerned that it inevitably becomes a tool to extend the incarcerative state and crack down on dissent. But it’s too simplistic to conclude that technology is good in the hands of civilians and dangerous in the hands of law enforcement. Technical tools, like Code for America’s Clear My Record, and the Clean Slate Initiative, have demonstrated great potential for technology to cut through bureaucratic hurdles to promote justice.

To be sure, technology is not a panacea to everything that ails criminal justice in America. Even the much-hyped expansion of body-worn cameras has not yielded all the benefits hoped for: there isn’t a lot of evidence they have done much to reduce police misconduct. Part of the issue is capacity—departments don’t invest in storing and analyzing footage, which can reduce cameras’ effectiveness. This is just a larger example of the way shortcomings in technical expertise and capacity have hampered efforts to improve the justice system. Huge translational gaps continue to exist between conceptualizing and developing technology tools to assist in criminal justice, and the training and infrastructure needed to roll the technology out to the field to use it effectively.

All of which is to say that there remains a lot of work to be done in this space: building new tools to circumvent policy problems (something Lincoln has unique expertise in), improving how governments utilize technology, and creating new governance frameworks that promote liberty. Technology has to be paired with resources, training, and most importantly a willingness to use it in a manner consistent with American values, if it is to be forced for effective reform. But that makes it no different from any other tool, which can be used for good or bad, or used effectively or not. We look forward to working to bridge this divide, advancing solutions that support liberty and justice. 

Further reading:

This post was co-authored by Arthur Rizer and Zach Graves. For additional information about this program, please contact Grace Meyer (grace@joinlincoln.org).

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Dan Lips
VP for National Security and Government Oversight
Grace Meyer
Head of Development
Garret Johnson Lincoln Executive Director
Garrett Johnson
Co-Founder and Executive Director
Zach Graves
Head of Policy
Sean Roberts
Chief Technologist
Alexiaa Jordan
Policy Analyst
Arthur Rizer
VP for Tech, Justice, and Liberty