Albert Sun

Albert Sun.
I was able to analyze a pressing policy issue using data. We spoke to jail administrators, social scientists and lawyers, but one of the most valuable experiences through my project was speaking to someone on death row.


Computer Science and Mathematics ’23

Project Team

In my freshman year, I was really interested in the intersection of data science and policy. I explored that intersection in a data competition on campus where I analyzed jail data surrounding the global COVID-19 outbreak. A few months later, I saw this Bass Connections project that touched on my two biggest interests: the prison system (and how that ties into mass incarceration and the racial wealth gap) and the quantitative sciences.

A desire to fight against mass incarceration must start at data transparency. Currently, there are very scarce data releases about what’s happening in jails. The only releases that exist are a national census of jails, made available every seven years, of the amount of people in the jail, who’s in which jail and how many people are entering and leaving. However, a lot can happen in seven years.

Our project team wanted to talk to some stakeholders about the creation of a jail database in North Carolina. Through a centralized database, social scientists, activists and lawmakers could look at how events like the pandemic are affecting jails, how new policies are affecting the amount of people in jail, and if those policies are effective. The more data transparency we have, the better picture we have of the jails in North Carolina.

Our team split up into a quantitative and a qualitative group. I was on the quantitative group, and we collected and analyzed data for the jails in four states, with each person responsible for a different state. Colorado has a comprehensive jail database, so I used their database to research how COVID-19 has affected the jails. I investigated whether or not those jails released people in the face of COVID. What I found was that, although there was an initial decrease in the amount of people in jails, within just a couple of months the jails were packed again.

I participated in Data+ before this team, but that project was more about the digital humanities, where I focused on analyzing old texts. Within my Bass Connections project, I was able to analyze a pressing policy issue using data. We were able to speak to some interesting people inside the jail system, including jail administrators, social scientists and lawyers. We also spoke to Alim, a prisoner currently on death row; this was such a powerful experience for me, because he was a person actively pursuing his interests and passions, more so than anyone I know. He has an Instagram and a lot of collaborators outside death row to create rap songs. Being able to talk to him, but also hear about the barriers for him to create his art, such as having to record tracks over the phone, was eye opening. (Check out Alim’s SoundCloud here.)

The leader of our project, Brandon Garrett, is a professor at Duke Law. I was really interested in public policy internships at organizations like the ACLU. I had applied to a bunch of them without much optimism because I was a sophomore. On my resume, I wrote that I was doing this project with Brandon Garrett. My resume got through and I got an interview where they said, “You work with Brandon Garrett? I’ve read his books.” I ended up getting the position. This project really helped me get into the door for a lot of legal internships, such as nonprofit organizations and policy organizations working on these issues.

I am still incredibly interested in the intersection of data science and criminal justice. I have continued pursuing this path. Recently, I’ve worked as a data science intern at the Vera Institute of Justice in Brooklyn, NY, where I worked on compiling and updating the largest jail dataset in the nation. Bass Connections helped me enter the door on criminal justice research, and I highly recommend the program to anyone interested in pursuing innovative intersections of interests.

January 2022; excerpts from a conversation with Dana Adcock ’22