OpenGov Voices: Unlocking prison re-entry data

Laurin Hodge, executive director of Mission: Launch

For nearly half of my life, I have lived the day-to-day realities and collateral consequences of mass incarceration. My mother, Teresa Hodge, was the first person in our immediate world to serve time in a prison (or jail). It was a shock when she was originally sentenced to serve 87 months for a first-time, nonviolent conviction. Upon winning a partial appeal and her subsequent release in 2011, we created Mission: Launch, Inc. – a 501(c)(3) organization with a commitment to creating solutions that shorten the time it takes to get back on your feet after incarceration.

We know America is the leading incarcerator of citizens: The harsh reality is we have 5 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Nearly 700,000 people are released annually back to society and communities. The number of women and men released is expected to only increase over the next decade.

It appears there is growing support to improve socio-economic outcomes for the 1-in-4 Americans with an arrest or conviction record facing discrimination in the job market. Yet knowing something must be done is not the same as knowing when, where and how to intervene in changing the status quo. Within 3 years of release, over two-thirds of the formerly incarcerated are rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Solving re-entry is a major step in reform; when a person walks out of “the gates,” we need to ensure the doors are closed behind them for good because something better awaits them in society.

As an organization, we consistently focus on civic technology and civic engagement to help us find ways to rebuild re-entry in the Washington, D.C., metro region. Through hosting social justice hackathons and re-entry focused human-centered design days, we have been able to identify where breakdowns occur between service providers, government agencies, individuals and community institutions. As prototype teams work together to build solutions we continuously end up at the same barrier: We can’t find relevant data.

We know that re-entry data exists because government agencies gather relevant figures and service providers collect information on clients. It is also not lost on us that for known security reasons all data collected cannot be made public. It is our desire to see a happy middle reached – secure and safe data that is open to the public.

Creating pathways for re-entry data to be more transparent and accessible will empower programmers, legislators and community experts to build more viable solutions. We cannot solve what we don’t yet see. At the community level we know more people are coming home to fewer opportunities at starting over; however, we don’t have the numbers to support this knowing. Beyond just seeing with our own eyes, we can’t advocate for greater resources and support without the facts. Weekly we speak with allies and there is a growing interest nationwide in building open source code focused on solving re-entry problems in cities all over America, because we can get there faster if we do it together. Thousands of families, individuals, organizations and civic coders are ready to roll up their sleeves and build roads to a new life after prison or jail — we just don’t have the information we need to get the job done.

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