Interview with MPP, STPP alum Melvin Washington II

March 4, 2021
Policymakers are not automatons that objectively evaluate data and make perfectly rational decisions. The way they react to the scientific findings we present to them is shaped by a combination of their own value judgements regarding specific forms of knowledge production, expertise, ethical mandates, and pragmatism. My STPP experience has helped me to understand and unpack how stakeholders relate to knowledge in a way that improves my ability to communicate data in a cogent manner, to a variety of audiences.

Melvin Washington

MPP, STPP, 2018
Program Associate, Vera Institute of Justice
Location: New York, NY

Melvin Washington is an alumnus of the Ford School’s Master of Public Policy Program and the Science, Technology, & Public Policy Graduate Certificate Program. In his role as a Program Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, he puts this passion to practice by assisting with the Center on Sentencing and Corrections’ jail reduction efforts through research, writing reports, and providing technical assistance to local decision-makers.

How has your work been influenced by your experience at STPP?

My STPP experience provided enriching and broad exposure to a number of historical factors, social issues, and political dynamics that shape contemporary science and tech policymaking. I think what resonated with me the most though, and what is most relevant to my work at present, was how many of the courses were really a study of knowledge itself. What counts as "knowledge" and "expertise", how they are created, how they are navigated, and how those processes/dynmaics came to be. This opened my mind to how subjective even the most objective understandings of the world really are.

My criminal justice reform work at the Vera Institute of Justice is data driven. Fundamentally what we're asking jurisdictions to do, when we help design and implement criminal justice reforms, is to make decisions based on science (in addition to a different set of values). There is decades of research that demonstrates the harmful impact that the overuse of jail incarceration can have on individuals and communities. However, policymakers are not automatons that objectively evaluate data and make perfectly rational decisions. The way they react to the scientific findings we present to them is shaped by a combination of their own value judgements regarding specific forms of knowledge production, expertise, ethical mandates, and pragmatism. My STPP experience has helped me to understand and unpack how stakeholders relate to knowledge in a way that improves my ability to communicate data in a cogent manner, to a variety of audiences.

What is the most fulfilling or interesting project you've worked on during your career?

The most interesting project I've worked on has been supporting the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, which is an ambitious initiative designed to help local governments across the country substantially reduce their jail populations. Working with this network of jurisdictions has given me exposure to a number of pressing science and tech issues at the intersection of public safety. Specifically, in Philadelphia there has been a heated debate over the adoption of an algorithm-based risk assessment tool designed to help determine when and under what conditions a person may be held in jail while they await the resolution of their case. During my time working on the Safety and Justice Challenge, I have seen the conversation around these AI based risk assessment tools move from them being heralded as technological salvation from injustice in pre-trial decision making, to being a political lightning rod drawing the ire of social justice advocates and technology specialists alike. It's been interesting to see the different ways jurisdictions have navigated this dynamic. 

What did the path to your current role look like?

My driving force to this point professionally has been a commitment to improving the lives of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Focusing on the people has led me to a number of different policy issues that implicate intersectional struggles for racial, economic, gender, and environmental justice. This is also what led me to the STPP program - It's impossible to ignore the impact that rapid technological advancement has had and will continue to have on already marginalized communities. Leaving the Ford School I had a strong desire to exercise this passion through an employer that would provide me the opportunity to both intellectualize about and act on the issues that mattered to me. As a data-driven think and do tank working to respond to a system almost unparalleled in its notoriety for causing racialized harm (the criminal legal system), the Vera Institute presented an opportunity to do exactly what I thought I wanted to.

What does your work look like today?

Today, my work involves conducting research, producing publications, and providing policy assistance to local governments and community-based organizations that are trying to reduce the use of jail incarceration in their locale. Recently, this has meant focusing on evidence-based strategies that emphasize using community-based services instead of jail incarceration to meet the safety and justice needs of communities.

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