The enormity of the country’s criminal justice system — 15,000 state and local courts, 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, more than two million prisoners — looks even more daunting when you consider how little we know about what is actually going on in there.
Want to know who we prosecute and why? Good luck. Curious about how many people are charged with misdemeanors each year? Can’t tell you. How about how many people reoffend after prison? We don’t really know that, either. In an age when everything is measured — when data determines the television we watch, the clothes we buy and the posts we see on Facebook — the justice system is a disturbing exception. Agencies exist in silos, and their data stays with them. Instead, we make policy based on anecdote, heavily filtered through a political lens.
This week the nonprofit Measures for Justice is launching an online tool meant to shine a high beam into these dark corners, reported The Marshall Project.
The project, which has as its motto “you can’t change what you can’t see,” centers on 32 “core measures”: yardsticks to determine how well local criminal justice systems are working. How often do people plead guilty without a lawyer? How often do prosecutors dismiss charges? How long do people have to wait for a court hearing? Users can also slice the answers to these questions in different ways, using “companion measures” such as race and political affiliation.
It’s the kind of task you’d expect a federal agency like the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has an average annual budget of $97 million, to take on. Instead, the 22 people at Measures for Justice’s Rochester, N.Y., offices are doing the work themselves on an annual budget of $4.6 million, donated mostly from foundations.
So far they’ve tackled six states: Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, gathering most of the numbers one county at a time. Together, these make up 10 percent of the nation’s counties. The team chose those six states for their geographical diversity and — to ease the data gathering in the project’s early phases — because they had unified statewide court databases.
The hope is to complete 15 more states by 2020, while updating the statistics from the first six states every two years.
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