Using Data to Improve the Criminal Justice System – County-by-County

Background

The United States incarcerates more individuals per capita than any other country in the world. With an expansive justice system consisting of federal, state, and local bodies collecting different metrics and using different performance measurements, it is difficult to imagine a standardized process for collection and assessment of data, even though it would allow for improved identification of systemic justice issues and sentencing disparities. Without the ability to compare performance and identify trends at all levels of the system, injustices may become more prevalent and become accepted as the status quo.     

In 2011, Executive Director Amy Bach formed Measures for Justice (MFJ) to bring transparency to the criminal justice system by collecting, cleaning, and coding criminal justice data at the county level to publish on a free data portal. The idea was to use patterns in the data to facilitate discussions about the justice system. “We collect data for so many other systems,” said Bach. “Why hasn’t it been done in the justice system?” With this question in mind, MFJ’s founding goal was to create a series of measures to gauge the performance of the criminal justice system at the county-level. Its approach was designed to be collaborative, encouraging justice practitioners at the county-level to provide feedback on MFJ’s measures, data, and contextual information throughout the process. Bach’s work aims to address three criminal justice system goals: fair process, public safety, and fiscal responsibility.

Implementation

MFJ initially approached the U.S. Department of Justice seeking to gather justice system metrics from jurisdictions nationwide. Recognizing an overall deficiency in the data, as well as inconsistencies across jurisdictions on the data measures being collected, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) recruited MFJ to refine its justice system series of measures and undertake a pilot program to gather the corresponding data elements to support those measures. This effort was part of a BJA National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) engagement.

Work commenced with an initial pilot program, or “feasibility study,” in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, with the support of District Attorney John Chisholm. To inform the pilot, MFJ’s data council of measurement experts with diverse expertise in the judicial system (e.g., judiciary, bench, indigent defense, prosecution) was formed to develop a series of justice performance measures that could be examined in Milwaukee County and, ultimately, be replicated across the United States. In Milwaukee, MFJ discovered a statewide court database that could populate 70 percent of the team’s existing measures. This demonstrated that while there were still additional gaps to fill, MFJ and the local justice system already had a substantial amount of existing data to work with to run through the new measures.

Expansion and Challenges

With the success of the efforts in Milwaukee County, MFJ sought to expand its work across Wisconsin, implementing a county-by-county approach. Teams of two researchers canvassed the state to meet with individual county law enforcement agencies and justice system practitioners, with the goal of examining how local officials were collecting data and, specifically, what metrics were being collected. MFJ’s statewide engagement efforts proved successful, with researchers ultimately covering all 72 counties across Wisconsin. However, the state of the data collected presented challenges – data collection fields differed across jurisdictions, data coding was not uniform, and the quality and the depth of the data varied significantly. Such variance led the team to find an effective way to standardize what they had collected and engage a variety of data experts throughout the process.

With the successes of both the pilot program in Milwaukee County and the expansion to all counties in Wisconsin, MFJ was in a strong position to expand its efforts further. Grant funding from other sources enabled MFJ to apply the same county-by-county approach in five additional states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington. MFJ chose these states because each is geographically diverse, has a large number of counties, and has a centralized state court database from which to pull and review data. MFJ’s research and assessment reinforced the notion that such data demonstrates to justice practitioners that they can make improvements to their own system processes and establish benchmarks for increasing efficiency and reducing bias and/or disparities. Further, when individual county justice practitioners are privy to the data and the measures of their neighboring counties, as well as those regionally and statewide, they have greater incentive to improve their own systems.

Moving Forward

MFJ received a second grant from BJA to conduct a “listening tour” in five Wisconsin counties. The tour consisted of in-depth meetings with stakeholders from five participating Wisconsin counties that provided input on the measures, the Wisconsin data, and how the measures would be visualized. MFJ personnel then met with national-level stakeholders and experts on their Methods & Measurement Council for a broader assessment of the more than 70 measures covering the spectrum of the criminal justice system, from arrest to post-conviction. As a result, MFJ narrowed the measures down to 32 and worked to build an online data portal to provide justice practitioners, legislators, and other stakeholders with access to the data collected from all six pilot states.

The resulting Measures for Justice Data Portal provides a series of performance measures – the number of which varies state-to-state – around the processing of adult criminal cases, enabling insights into case processing, case characteristics, and defendant characteristics. Users can narrow the data by race/ethnicity, age, offense type, offense severity, attorney type, and several other filters. Using the portal, policymakers and practitioners can compare counties within and across states using measures that can be displayed and downloaded as maps, bar graphs, and tables of data. Each measure is accompanied by a short and long definition, footnotes with specific county practices relevant to the measure, state statutory baselines, county context, and opportunities for users to provide feedback.

Bach explained, “The data are a treasure trove for communities that will now have access to reliable, informative, and comprehensive data about their criminal justice systems. Our portal is intended to be a starting point for conversations about how to address the multiple issues facing the system.”

Already, criminal justice practitioners in the six pilot states are using the portal to begin conversations about the criminal justice system in their communities:

  • In King County, Washington, District Attorney Dan Satterberg used MFJ data to explain the need for further investigation into why King County has the fourth highest failure-to-pay rate for court fees and fines in the state, despite assessing the lowest amount of court fees and fines in Washington.
  • In Winnebago, Wisconsin, District Attorney Christian Gossett decided to examine diversion disparities after analyzing MFJ data and finding that for non-violent misdemeanors with no prior convictions in the previous three years, white defendants are diverted nearly twice as often as non-white defendants.
  • In Davis County, Utah, District Attorney Troy Rawlings is demonstrating successes in the criminal justice system, using MFJ data to show that dismissal rates in Davis County are at the state average and that charge reductions are below the state average, signaling that his team is not only putting together solid cases, but also charging at the appropriate level from the start.

MFJ’s research is descriptive, and therefore does not reveal causation as related to the measures. Yet with a frame of reference for justice measures and recommendations for how to align metrics, the group continues to work to improve the system for all stakeholders. The team is still seeking data – especially law enforcement data – to expand its effort to measure all aspects of the criminal justice system. MFJ’s ultimate goal is ambitious, but it is one that has the potential to radically transform the administration of justice across the United States for the better. With its successes to date, MFJ has demonstrated that knowledge is in fact power, or as they say, “no data, no change.” In this case, the knowledge of how a county is performing compared to national standards and neighboring communities could be the catalyst to ignite change in communities to not just do better, but understand how to do better.

If you would like to contact MFJ on their research, methodology, and measures; send your thoughts on the measures; and stay up-to-date with MFJ’s progress, contact the team here.

To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future BJA NTTAC TTA Spotlight, please e-mail nttac@bjatraining.org.

If your agency or community is interested in data collection and corrections or would like to apply for technical assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at nttac@bjatraining.org to discuss your unique criminal justice needs.