Applying Design Thinking to the Criminal Justice System


Santa Clara County Opts For Reducing Recidivism And Jail Reform, Delays Expansion

For the last 5 months, DC Design has been working with Santa Clara County to redesign aspects of their criminal justice system, applying our human centered design approach to reduce jail recidivism rates.

Recidivism: the tendency to end up in jail again after being released.

Five years ago, California faced a choice: build more prisons or figure out how to reduce its prison population. The number of incarcerated people in the state had increased exponentially with some prisons holding 300 percent of their capacity levels. California and Texas had the highest prison populations in the United States with each state exceeding 200,000 individuals.

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a controversial bill called AB109: it mandates non-violent, non-sexual offenders be sent back to the criminal justice systems at the county level to reduce the burden on state prisons. The responsibility for inmate care shifted from state prisons to county jails.

Note: jails are typically where inmates await trial or complete a short sentence; prisons are for those who have already been convicted, usually of more serious crimes such as a felony or manslaughter. Jails are operated by local agencies; prisons are run by state or federal agencies.

While the new legislation decreased the number of prisoners, counties faced a new problem. What were they going to do with all the new inmates that had just been sent home? Many counties around California responded by immediately building more jails.

Santa Clara County, however, responded by asking what it could do to reduce the number of people locked away.

Taking a bolder approach than other counties, Santa Clara formed the Reentry Network (REN), a group of 27 leaders from across the criminal justice system. These stakeholders would meet quarterly to share information, thoughts, and insights about how to best help former inmates positively reintegrate into society. These stakeholders understood that repeat offenders make up a significant portion of the jail population. However, programs aimed at correcting behavior and providing resources reduce the chances someone will reoffend and end up back in jail. The county established the Reentry Resources Center, a one-stop shop for former inmates to receive the resources they need to get back on their feet.

These efforts, as well as adherence to a strategic, 5-year plan commissioned by the county succeeded in reducing recidivism numbers.

“Our Reentry Center’s innovative approach has a proven record of success,” said County of Santa Clara Supervisor Cindy Chavez, Chair of the Santa Clara County Reentry Network. “Our county recidivism rate, reported in 2015, is 34% — just about half of the national rate of 61%.”

Although this was great progress, in 2015, the death of Michael Tyree while in jail and the ensuing conviction of the three guards involved in his death sent a lightning rod through the county, igniting a debate about treatment of inmates, particularly those with mental illness.

With the end of their 5-year strategic plan on the horizon, the county wanted to chart out a new course for their criminal justice reform efforts, so they contacted DC Design.

Our speciality is multi-stakeholder systems design work. We work on challenging issues that directly affect the lives of those we aim to serve. Most often, those are people that the rest of society doesn’t pay much attention to. The people who are left behind. Those who often need another chance to succeed. We work on issues surrounding foster youth, we work with low income communities around the country and some of our current work is helping Santa Clara County redesign their approach to criminal justice and inmatereentry.

The process that we use to affect these complex systems is known as Human-Centered Design. Human-Centered Design, also known as design thinking, works off the principle of involving the person who experiences the problem in the creation of the solution. Historically, it’s been applied to product design but we take these concepts and apply them to our society’s complex social systems. Whereas a company would use it to build a product for a subset of potential customers by talking with them, and learning about what needs to change about their product, we work with multiple stakeholders to understand their varying needs, their diverse perspectives on the issue at hand, and the underlying opportunities that exist to improve the system.

In the case of criminal justice reform, our current work is with the Santa Clara County Reentry Network, an organization composed of the key leaders in the county criminal justice system — the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, a County Supervisors, the Director of Reentry Services, the Head of Parole, the Director of Behavioral Health and 20 other leaders and community members.

Our work is to understand the perspectives and needs of each stakeholder. What do they believe to be true? What have they seen as necessary to maintain public safety? How do their priorities and perspectives differ and overlap with the other stakeholders involved in the system? For example, we are asking, “What are the sheriff’s priorities? How do these differ from the district attorney’s? Where do they overlap?”

We look for areas of common thinking:

For instance, “the mentally ill don’t belong in jail.” This is a perspective shared by several key re-entry network stakeholders. We look for these overlaps as a way of identifying easy areas of collaboration.

We also look at areas of tension: “Our highest priority is maintaining public safety.”

These two views can be perceived as incompatible, but in reality we need to include them both in our problem definition. It is only by examining seemingly contradictory needs that we can design for multiple stakeholders.

So we ran the 27 members of the Reentry Network (REN) through our design process and identified 131 challenges to meeting the needs of those who are currently or were formerly incarcerated. We then sorted these challenges into 12 major challenge categories.


We analyzed the prevalence with which different challenges were cited and quantified them to understand where the areas of biggest needs are in the county, according to the Reentry Network stakeholders.

Santa Clara County Reentry Challenge Categories

Santa Clara County Reentry Challenge Categories

By looking at both the 12 challenge categories and the specific challenges cited within those, we can better understand the types of improvements that would begin to make a difference for Santa Clara’s specific jail reentry system. We pulled out key insights that the county could use as a starting point to develop its new strategy.

A small sample of those insights are:

1. The Basic Needs challenge category is by far the most agreed upon problem across stakeholders in the county. Looking at the specifics within that challenge category we see that Housing, Employment, Education, and Transportation were cited as the areas where solutions are most needed.

Santa Clara County Reentry Basic Needs

Santa Clara County Reentry Basic Needs

2. Similar to what we found with Basic Needs, if we dive into the Employee Efficacy, which pertains to how easy it is for employees to do their jobs effectively and meet the needs of the formerly incarcerated, we see that a possible area of improvement is changing employee workflows and the way the organization is structured.

3. We were able to understand specifically how challenges overlap and show that addressing some of the specific challenges cited will require a concerted effort in multiple areas. One example of a complex challenge is to create a reentry process that is responsive to each individuals specific needs. To do so will require the county to address challenges in at least 5 different categories — Consumer Support, Reentry Network Offerings, Process Refinement, Consumer Insights and Consumer Education.

These are just a few of the insights gleaned from this work.

One key point that we ask organizations to keep in mind when reviewing our data and analysis is that ultimately, no solution should be implemented without involving the end user.

This point is frequently overlooked by governments and large organizations who are designing solutions. Most often, the people designing the solutions don’t ask the perspectives of the people who will be using them and it leads to the creation of ineffective solutions that waste time and money. While the reentry network is composed of the departmental leaders across Santa Clara County, many of our greatest insights will be gleaned from the inmates themselves. It will be the questions we ask them in the coming months that will truly inform the best solutions to come. Questions like: “Why have they been to jail 2 or 3 times?” “What would have kept them out of jail this last time?” “What sort of training do they think would be useful?”

It is this level of engagement with inmates and former inmates that will continue to set Santa Clara County apart from others that remain committed to top down approaches.

What’s most exciting to us is that because of the immense work that has already been done, the county is in a great position to act. Of the 12 challenge categories shown, 8 of them are areas the Reentry Network can influence right now. That means that 66 percent of these challenges categories can be addressed largely by redesigning internal processes and shifting focus and resources to those areas. Which in our opinion, is a great place to start.

To dig further into the full report of our findings with the Santa Clara County Reentry Network, click here.