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Q & A with Lab Director, Jessie Smith

What is the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab?

The Lab seeks to promote a fair and effective criminal justice system, public safety, and economic prosperity. It works by engaging a broad range of stakeholders to examine the criminal justice system through an evidence-based perspective and promoting the use of a rigorous evidence-based approach to criminal justice policy.

How did the idea for the Lab originate?

In 2017 the state legislature reformed the state’s juvenile justice system. Specifically, the legislature raised North Carolina’s juvenile age ensuring that, except in the most serious cases, 16- and 17-year olds who commit acts that would be a crime if committed by an adult, go through the state’s rehabilitative juvenile system as opposed to the adult criminal justice system. The central features of that legislation came directly from an evidence-based proposal from Chief Justice Mark Martin’s North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice. That report concluded that the change would promote fairness, public safety and economic prosperity. As the Commission’s appointed Reporter, I was deeply involved with that reform; I had a front row seat to see bipartisan evidence-based criminal justice reform in action. That and related experiences helped me formulate the idea for the Lab.

Why is the Lab needed in North Carolina?

I have been working in North Carolina’s criminal justice system for over 20 years. I have learned that to solve pressing problems in the system stakeholders need to partner with others, such as those in the school and mental health systems and local and state governments. Currently no neutral, trusted entity exists in North Carolina to bring together these stakeholders to solve complex criminal justice issues. Additionally, much of the way justice is administered in North Carolina is unchanged from decades past. North Carolina is missing opportunities created by the digital and technological revolution to use new tools to test assumptions underlying criminal justice policy and implement and assess data-driven reforms. In a time of bipartisan support for evidence-based reform, the Innovation Lab’s approach holds great promise.

What is your long-term hope for the Lab and the work it will do?

I want the Lab to support evidence-based criminal justice policy throughout the entire system, from front-end issues like bail reform to back-end issues like fines and fees. I want the Lab to be the place for education, innovation, research, and reform.

How does your work, both with the Lab and the School of Government in general, support the University’s mission?

A core part of UNC’s mission is to extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State. North Carolina’s criminal justice system impacts not just defendants and victims, but also citizens, communities, state and local government, businesses and North Carolina’s economy. By seeking to improve the state’s criminal justice system, the Lab’s work tightly aligns with the University’s mission to enhance the quality of life for all North Carolinians.

Lab Director

Jessica Smith
W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government

(919) 966-4105

Jessica Smith came to the School of Government in 2000, after practicing law at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and clerking for Judge W. Earl Britt on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and for Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. At the School of Government, Smith works with judges and others involved in the criminal justice system. Her numerous books, chapters, articles, and other publications deal with criminal procedure, substantive criminal law, and evidence. In 2015, Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed Smith as a Reporter for the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice. Smith played a central role in developing the Commission’s recommendation to raise North Carolina’s juvenile age, which was enacted into law by the state legislature. Smith offers numerous courses for judges and is actively involved in criminal justice reform projects, including pretrial justice and addressing overcriminalization. In 2006, she received the Albert and Gladys Hall Coates Term Professorship for Teaching Excellence; in 2013, she was named by the Chancellor as a W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor, one of the University’s highest academic honors. Smith earned a BA, cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD, magna cum laude, Order of the Coif, from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she was managing editor of the Law Review.

Lab Staff

Ethan Rex
Project Manager

(919) 445-1089

Ethan Rex came to the School in June 2020 and serves as Project Manager for the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab. Originally from Oklahoma, Ethan has work experience in mental health and affordable housing. He has a Master’s Degree in public policy from Duke University’s Sanford School. At Duke, Ethan specialized in research involving housing policy and reentry services. Among other things, he conducted an evaluation of the City of Durham’s Permanent Supportive Housing programs and evaluated the effectiveness of Local Reentry Councils for NC Department of Public Safety. Ethan supports the Lab’s research projects, executes research, and provides executive-level project management on the Lab’s many ongoing projects.

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