Data matters in fair and effective American criminal justice system

Data matters in fair and effective American criminal justice system
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This month, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, signed into law a bill that sets a new gold standard for collecting criminal justice data. The bill requires the state’s 67 counties to collect the same data about their criminal justice system, record it in the same way, and store it in the one publicly accessible database. It is an exciting piece of legislation, as comprehensive county-level criminal justice data is difficult to come by, which means making informed policy decisions, or piloting reforms, is incredibly challenging.

While it’s undeniable that the bill is a huge step forward, Florida is not alone in its efforts to use better data collection to tackle over-incarceration. Local jurisdictions across the country are working to improve how they collect, analyze, report and use data for greater transparency and accountability in their criminal justice systems, and they are pursuing these reforms without any state-level legislative mandates. These kind of local efforts are crucial, because with nearly 12 million admissions each year, local jails function as the gateway to over-incarceration in America.

Just a few days in jail can increase the chances that a person will face future arrest or incarceration. Once intended to hold people who were dangerous or who might flee before trial, jails have instead become de facto warehouses for people with serious mental illness and those who are simply too poor to post bail. The majority of people in jail are there for low-level offenses, and approximately two-thirds have not been convicted of any crime.

Implementing lasting reforms to address these challenges and reverse these troubling trends requires data-driven strategies that start at the local level. Only with more data will jurisdictions be able to see the full picture and tailor reforms accordingly so we can begin to answer critical questions about who is in jail, why they’re there, and what factors may be keeping them there unnecessarily.

For instance, in Charleston, South Carolina, county officials have created a communal database that aggregates information from courts, the county jail, and numerous local law enforcement agencies. Cross-referencing this data gives officials a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how Charleston’s criminal justice system is functioning and where potential inefficiencies or bottlenecks exist. Officials are already using insights from the database to identify and implement reform strategies, and have seen a significant decrease in the number of local jail admissions.

Over the last year, Palm Beach County in Florida has launched a publicly available data dashboard that integrates information from the court and corrections department and allows the viewer to track key trends driving the local jail population over time. Officials are using this data system to inform how they develop and implement additional reforms, including creating automated court reminders to address high rates of failure to appear in court warrants, developing community-based solutions in lieu of jail for low-level offenders, and implementing risk-based pretrial supervision.

In Philadelphia, which has the highest rate of incarceration of any large jurisdiction in the country, officials examined available data to identify four main groups that were the biggest drivers of the local jail population. To limit the use of jail for these groups, which include probation violators and pretrial defendants, Philadelphia has rolled out a range of reforms to both prevent people from entering jail and reduce case processing times for those who are booked. The city has expanded eligibility for expedited plea offers, increased the use of electronic monitoring for probation violators, and begun conducting early bail reviews for certain types of cases. These strategies seem to be working, as the city’s jail population has decreased by 27 percent in the last two years.

Better data collection and analysis can also help local jurisdictions understand and question emerging trends. According to recent research from the Vera Institute of Justice, the number of white people in jails across the country doubled between 1990 and 2013. But a closer look reveals that inconsistent data collection practices may be partially skewing those figures. Some jurisdictions do not regularly collect demographic data to analyze rates of Latinos and Hispanics, so people who come into contact with a local jail and identify as Latino or Hispanic are often miscategorized as white. This may account for some portion of observed increases in white jail incarceration rates.

If we want to safely and effectively reduce over-incarceration across the country, we need complete and accurate data in order to identify areas that are ripe for reform and develop the appropriate strategies accordingly. More data allows communities to examine trends over time and identify and eliminate ineffective, inefficient and unfair practices. This in turn allows jurisdictions to pursue programs and policies that protect public safety and responsibly steward taxpayer dollars.

Florida’s recent legislation is a promising bellwether, and jurisdictions like Charleston, Palm Beach County, and Philadelphia illustrate that implementing criminal justice reform does not have to start at the national or even state level. Rolling back wasteful, harmful practices is happening at the local level, helping to create fairer and more effective local justice systems across the country.

Laurie Garduque is director for justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation and leads the Safety and Justice Challenge, national network of cities and states focused on justice reform and research on American prisons.