Criminal justice data in this country is hard to come by. It can be messy and difficult to understand. And in many cases, the data doesn’t exist at all.
How many people are in jail? For what crimes? For how long? Are people in jail mostly awaiting trial? Are they there for being unable to pay bail of $500 or less? You might think we know the answers to these basic questions, but we don’t.
Missing data is at the core of a national crisis. The United States leads the industrialized world in incarceration. With nearly 5 percent of the planet’s population and almost a quarter of its prison population, the country has invested a tremendous amount of money in the corrections system without the statistics necessary to tell us whether that money is actually reducing crime, improving fairness or lessening recidivism. State and federal spending on corrections has grown more than 300 percent over the past 20 years — becoming one of the fastest-growing line items in state budgets.
No credible business would ever make this kind of investment without being able to gauge its success. Moreover, we’ve all come to expect transparency when it comes to how the important institutions in our lives — our schools and hospitals, for example — are performing. Data-driven decision-making is the norm there, as it should be for criminal justice.
Why don’t we have better criminal justice data? Because justice in this country is primarily local. The United States has over 3,000 counties, and each county has multiple agencies that record data, each in its own way. There is no common language, and there are no standard definitions. Worse, the data is notoriously difficult to get. The result? No one can make informed policy decisions to improve public safety, reduce costs or identify patterns of inequity.
But all of this is beginning to change. Two weeks ago, Florida legislators passed a bill that would make the state’s criminal justice system the most transparent in the country.
The bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, requires the state’s 67 counties to collect the same data, record it in the same way and store it in the same public place.
The state is to set up a repository that will house data that covers arrest to post-conviction and will be collected and reported by court clerks, state attorneys, public defenders, county jails and the Department of Corrections.
The legislation is a common-sense measure, but it’s also a huge step forward. At my organization, Measures for Justice, we have been collecting criminal justice data from all over the country for six years. We go agency by agency to collect the data, much of it stored in an antiquated fashion. What we often notice is missing and incomplete data.
What’s more, agencies often fail to make full use of the data they have, despite constantly receiving data requests from professionals in and out of the system who seek to make improvements. At times, we have found that the public data is so hard to get — dispersed among multiple agencies, in multiple formats — that it is in essence unavailable.
But when we have all the data, we can begin to address aspects of the criminal justice system that might well merit reform. In Florida, for instance, we will now be able to see who is being assigned bail and for what kind of charges. We’ll get information on whether cases involving poor defendants have outcomes different from those of cases involving more affluent defendants.
The state will also collect data on ethnicity, which will show how Latinos, the largest ethnic group in Florida, are being treated by the criminal justice system. And for a more accurate picture of recidivism, it will collect data on whether probation and parole revocations are due to technical violations or to arrests for a new offense. The law mandates that everything will be published in a “modern, open, electronic format that is machine-readable and readily accessible to the public” on the state Department of Law Enforcement’s website.
Information should be available to everyone. It can’t be limited to a small group of local professionals, who themselves have access only to an incomplete database or old documents in the basement of a county building. Florida’s lawmakers have recognized the need to let the sunshine in and get this right. Other states might enjoy the light as well.