The Gaps That Insufficient Data Has Left In America’s Criminal Justice System

August 23, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Earlier this year, the Measures for Justice (MFJ) project released a comprehensive report that looked at data collection — or lack thereof — in the criminal justice system in 20 states across the country. What the organization found was a “staggering” and gaping chasm between the data needed to craft effective policy and what is actually available on the ground.

The MFJ report looked at over 1,200 counties with centralized data systems. The organization says its report is “the most complete measurement of state criminal court systems to date.” What it found was a distinct lack of information and gaps in the data available, which, in turn, has serious implications for policy-making and reform.

Some of the problems faced when trying to conduct research into the system, as detailed by MFJ, are incomplete, missing, or inconsistent data. This could even include handwriting that is impossible to read. Just as one example, the MFJ report says that in Alabama, “the fields reflecting bond amount and payment were missing for approximately 99% of cases.”

It is well known that the justice system in the U.S. is “sprawling.” A majority of experts also say its infrastructure and data architecture is “antiquated and crumbling.” Per some estimates, the average spending on criminal justice by states and the federal government has grown almost 400% over the last two decades, making it one of the largest line-items in any budget.

There is, however, little information on how that money is being used or what the most pressing needs are. People get lost in the system, and it is virtually impossible to track a case from inception to resolution. Sometimes, MFJ says, it can feel like venturing into a “landscape of unknowns.” As a result, the system is perceived as “opaque, impenetrable, and, in a way, immovable.”

Against this context, it is important to consider why collecting data effectively and transparently is important.

Earlier this year, we wrote about how the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) was retiring the Summary Reporting System (SRS) after 90 years, replacing it with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The new system is intended to “improve the overall quality of crime data collected by law enforcement,” and also collate more robust information about the arrests. In 2019, the FBI said it received data from 14,993 of the 18,671 law enforcement agencies in the country.

As of today, over halfway through 2021, however, the latest criminal data is still from 2019. In fact, the 2019 data was released nearly a full year later. This creates a policy lag and puts law enforcement, governments, and the criminal justice system as a whole on the back foot. Legislating on old data leaves the system one step behind. For instance, going off the 2019 data today would make the Covid-19 pandemic a total nonentity. Data, advocates say, has to be accessible in real-time to be truly useful.

The advantages of data-driven policy are well established and manifold. When it comes to policy that affects things like people’s access to healthcare, road safety, firearms regulations, policing, etc., it simply isn’t enough to trust one’s “gut” or go off intuition.

For policy to be truly effective and for us, as a society, to be able to truly establish whether a given policy has achieved its goals or is doing more harm than good, data is crucial. It is just as important when it comes to oversight, as well. Using data to drive policy can identify areas of dire need that may otherwise slip under the radar. 

The ways it can help include in response planning, as analyzing data allows law enforcement to understand which methods work best in which situations. It also enables crime prevention and risk assessment through trend and pattern identification, and enhances cross-border and inter-agency cooperation and collaboration.

Experts seem to agree that there is a need for objective data that could lead to “consistent and compelling” evidence about what policies are working and what aren’t. There are some politically controversial reforms like the elimination of cash bail that would benefit from having more data to understand what the best solution is in any case.

There are some statistics that are considered particularly vital when it comes to data collection in the criminal justice system. For instance, a breakdown of sex, gender, race, and age. This data needs to be collected across different stages of an individual moving through the system, from arrests and incarceration to pre-trial, post-bail, conviction, release, etc. Most times, not only is this data not made public due to legislation or administrative issues, the MFJ report says, but some districts don’t even collect the data.

All of this also builds to a highly worrying problem — a lack of transparency. This, in turn, severely complicates efforts to make effective and just policy, which also then makes it difficult to engender trust in the system and in any proposed reforms.

The MFJ report calls for more data to be made public and to foster quality research, within, of course, fundamental constitutional privacy and protection parameters. It says that such systems need to be implemented through legislation and that higher collection standards need to be enforced. The first step would be to conduct a comprehensive review of the data that each county or state does have so that the gaps can be identified.

The data must be accessible to communities and practitioners, both in terms of allowing them to collect it and allowing them to access and analyze it. This involves the whole system, from civil society, to police officers, prosecutors, and court personnel. It is only through this, MFJ says, that people can have faith in their justice system and the system itself can work for the greater good of the people it serves.