Localizing data to drive criminal justice reform

Localizing data to drive criminal justice reform
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Data has become the driver of criminal justice reform. There has been a steady shift towards “evidence-based” and “data-driven” initiatives by state governments, non-profits and research institutions in an effort to validate potential outcomes and benefits to both jurisdictions and individuals.

However, researchers and practitioners whose work informs these initiatives rely far too often on national-level statistics such as Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data. While national-level data is important and can provide valuable insights into the trends in the justice system, such reliance on one repository is problematic. This data can have inconsistent standards and lack full participation and uniformity in reporting from all jurisdictions. 


Similarly, any form of national-level statistics is less meaningful if not linked with other important localized information such as community-level data from the U.S. Census, local data sources, and geospatial information. “Going local” must extend to data.


Operationally, “going local” has the benefit of providing law enforcement and other agencies with data and information specific to their jurisdiction and at an appropriate level for the data to be actionable.

At the Misdemeanor Justice Project we have combined incident data and population demographics to inform criminal justice reform in New York City. This allows us to provide data at multiple levels of aggregation, including city, county, and precinct; data that are specific enough to inform policymakers and drive operational changes. These data structures also allow agencies to utilize a suitable population base to examine their data, allowing for a better understanding of trends for specific subgroups including age, race/ethnicity and gender.

Recognizing the need for researchers, policymakers, and the public to access data at various levels of aggregation, we recently expanded our scope to include additional jurisdictions throughout the United States. Jurisdictions in our Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice provide data that is specific to the needs of their local communities.

Researchers can geocode incident-based data for agencies such as police departments and then provide that data at the most effective level of aggregation for that agency. In this capacity, we have variously provided agencies with geospatial data at the “beat level,” “ward level,” “precinct level,” and “district level” for their use in local analyses. 

For example, in St. Louis, researchers are using several levels of aggregation specific to the city, such as districts, low beats, neighborhoods and wards, to inform their work. Specifically, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department publishes its crime statistics at the neighborhood level. Therefore, research at that level aligns with publically available data and is practical for police operations, while analyses at larger or smaller levels of aggregation may be useful to the city in other ways.

In Los Angeles, we were able to create geographic tools, also known as shape files, of old Los Angeles Police Department divisions to enable researchers to examine historical trends of misdemeanor arrests while taking into account changes over time both in division boundaries and the population base. All of this is particularly important because it considers the needs of a jurisdiction and impacts the level that criminal justice reform is happening — locally.

We are informing researchers, practitioners and the public, but these efforts are also about knowledge-sharing and being able to compare data across jurisdictions, which often have different laws and legislative bodies. This knowledge-sharing can help move us forward and can allow data-driven criminal justice reform to be examined through different lenses. 

We know that criminal justice reform crosses the political aisle and it is crucial for policymakers to have access to data, to have skilled individuals handling and analyzing the data, and to make this data available to the public. This is the best approach. It can enhance public safety, while improving the fairness of the criminal justice system. It is evidence-based and necessary for all jurisdictions. So let’s go local.

Meredith L. Patten, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where her research focuses on policing. The Research Network on Misdemeanor Justice is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.