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Don’t ignore the infrastructure of criminal justice

Now that Senate lawmakers on Capitol Hill passed an infrastructure bill to improve our roads and bridges, it’s time to focus on data infrastructure for our criminal justice system. 

Advocates for criminal justice reform from different fields and backgrounds are all reaching the same conclusion: Any attempt at real, lasting change will require a significant investment in our ability to collect, store, and share data. We cannot confirm that new policies work without tracking their outcomes. We cannot address racial injustice without data about policing practices, court processes, jail populations, and prison systems. 

Meanwhile, the political discourse around critical issues like pretrial reform, gun violence, and police accountability all suffer from a lack of objective data. 

The country’s criminal justice data infrastructure is antiquated and crumbling. State by state, we cannot track information about the people who are processed through our courts and jails. Measures for Justice recently released a report documenting the extent of the country’s criminal justice data gap based on an analysis of 20 states. In seventeen, court data on indigent defendants was entirely unavailable. In eighteen, data about the pretrial process, such as bail, detention and release practices, were practically nonexistent. These findings scratch the surface of a nationwide problem: We can’t access information necessary to measure the success (or failure) of politically controversial reforms, such as the elimination of cash bail, or hold informed, productive debates about the next steps. 

Similarly, as the nation grapples with the spike in gun violence, it remains striking how little we actually know about the use — and misuse — of firearms. Last year the Expert Panel on Firearms Data Infrastructure, convened by the nonpartisan and objective research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, released a report documenting how the federal government can repair and expand our disordered and segmented gun data systems. Any reasoned debate on firearms policy requires a shared set of facts — and the nation simply doesn’t have those facts. 

And Congress is still debating the George Floyd Policing Act, a police reform bill that includes data transparency in its litany of policies. Collecting information on police misconduct and decertification can help overcome the structural barriers that make it difficult to hold officers accountable for abuse of power. We need an unblemished, objective sense of police practices if we hope to have a serious conversation about the proper role of policing. 

Each one of these projects tackles a different area, but all of them underscore the need to improve data infrastructure for our sprawling, uncoordinated, and incredibly expensive criminal justice system. State and federal spending on criminal justice has grown almost 400 percent over the past 20 years — one of the fastest-growing line items in state budgets — yet we remain 

unable to answer simple questions about how it functions. 

Luckily, local politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, are already improving state-level systems. Since 2011, Utah has passed no fewer than 12 data laws, most recently a bill that addresses how and what law enforcement data are collected for the purpose of evidence-based decision making.  In 2017, Florida passed the most forward thinking criminal justice data transparency law in the country and is doing the hard work of implementing that bill. These states, alongside New York, California, Louisiana, Idaho, Indiana and others, recognize the value of fact-based dialogue about public policy. But state lawmakers cannot do this work alone; they need the federal government’s leadership and support.

Closing the country’s data gap will require setting national standards for data collection and release. Congress also needs to provide support and incentives for the local agencies that all too often rely on outdated data collection systems — if they have a system at all.

The task may seem daunting, but it is well within the abilities — and budget — of Congress and the White House to tackle. For example, the estimated cost of improving the entire federal firearm data infrastructure — less than $160 million — is cheaper than resurfacing an airport runway. 

But without a solid foundation for evidence-based policy making, it becomes impossible to track outcomes. Reform is stifled. Racial discrepancies continue. Failed promises and opaque systems undermine public trust.

In the same way that roads or education are foundational to a larger economic project, good data serve as a foundation for the larger project of public safety and racial justice. It is a project that Congress cannot ignore. 

Amy Bach is Chief Executive Officer of Measures for Justice. Jeremy Travis is Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. 


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