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How a ‘Treasure Trove’ of Untapped Data Could Shed Light on Criminal Justice Reform

SEARCH, the nonprofit that helps manage state criminal history databases, wants to bring research to the fore of its mission to help inform policy.

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The numbers caught David Roberts’ eye.

While looking at one state’s criminal history records while on a visit to its data repository, he noticed that the number of people arrested for the very first time in their lives had jumped 30 percent over a five-year period.

“That really piqued my curiosity,” said Roberts, who had worked for 17 years at SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. 

Why the 30 percent increase in first-time arrestees? Who were they? Were they younger or older? Were they more or less violent? Were the arrests drug-related?

Or had there been a change in the state’s legislation, where certain offenses — like domestic violence or DUI — now called for arrest, whereas in the past they hadn’t?

“The point is, we don’t know, we have no idea,” Roberts said. “And I thought, boy, this would be really important to have this information just to understand, what does the active offending population in my jurisdiction look like? Is there something going on we’re not aware of? Is there an emerging issue?”

Today, as the criminal justice reform movement gains momentum and existing policies are being called into question, Roberts wants to see research take a leading role in shaping what reform looks like. 

And he thinks SEARCH — a 50-year-old nonprofit he now leads — may be able to help in significant ways.

Wealth of Information

Research hasn’t been a top priority for SEARCH in its first five decades. The consortium primarily exists to help states maintain accurate, complete, and timely criminal history records that can be shared among law enforcement and justice agencies and ensure there are adequate privacy protections for those records. This kind of information-sharing is used when patrol officers are checking a suspect’s criminal history or a judge is making a bail decision or an agency is performing a background check. It’s also increasingly important in making employment and licensing decisions, approving firearms purchases, and determining a person’s eligibility for certain services.

The governor-appointed members of SEARCH are, for the most part, the men and women in charge of their state’s data repositories, and their primary focus is on day-to-day operations — managing the data and making sure it is correct and up-to-date, not an easy task when information is coming from so many agencies with different workflows and different computer systems. 

“A lot of our focus over the past 20, 30 years has been on information-sharing,” said Roberts, who became Executive Director of SEARCH in 2017. “How do we build solutions to help law enforcement electronically send that arrest information to us, to enable the prosecutor and courts to electronically send their dispositions to the repository and to make sure it’s good, solid, quality data.”

But what Roberts has been struck by over the years is the goldmine of data the states are sitting on — “these are the most powerful, most untapped data sources that exist,” he said — and how useful they could be to researchers who want to look deeper into specific criminal justice issues. After all, criminal history records are the single greatest factor in nearly every decision that’s made in the justice system. If put in the hands of academics who could study patterns in these records — like why the state Roberts visited had a 30 percent increase in first-time arrestees — the data could be immensely helpful to justice reform efforts.

You are sitting on top of a treasure trove of data that, when combined with other data, can shed light on some of the important issues facing our field.
Jeremy Travis Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice, at SEARCH’s 2019 symposium

So Roberts started posing this idea to the consortium. And in January of this year, SEARCH launched a working group — which includes state repository directors and research experts — to come up with a research agenda.

“We’re at an inflection point. There are these forces nationwide talking about criminal justice reform and reentry and the Second Chance Act and Clean Slate, all of these motivating initiatives nationwide that have the criminal record as one of their fundamental components,” Roberts said. At the same time, there is this rich data source available that has the biometric precision most sources don’t have — because it’s based on fingerprints — and captures information from police and prosecutors and courts and corrections agencies. “It offers this really rich insight into the nature of crime and criminality and how the justice system operates and how criminal careers develop.

“I think it’s really important to bring those two forces together.”

‘A New and Modern Mission’

When Jeremy Travis heard about the research initiative Roberts was taking at SEARCH, he was encouraged. Helping research institutions gain access to data for analysis — and proposing policies that are based on the resulting evidence — is one of the core functions of Arnold Ventures, where he is the Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice. 

“What’s always been the potential of SEARCH is that [it had] data that could support research in the criminal justice field,” Travis said. “The asset that they’re sitting on top of are these criminal history records, which are created not for research purposes but for operational purposes. We’re charging them to think beyond their operational value and look into their research value.”

Travis made that charge official on Tuesday, when he gave a keynote speech on research at SEARCH’s 2019 symposium in Arlington, Virginia, lauding the organization’s willingness to embrace “a new and modern mission.”

With calls for accountability in the criminal justice system coming louder and faster by the day, Travis posed — and answered — a question to those gathered at the symposium: “Guess who has the right data to figure this out? You folks.”

“You are sitting on top of a treasure trove of data that, when combined with other data, can shed light on some of the important issues facing our field,” he said.

As SEARCH builds its research agenda, Travis proposed five topics that he felt the data could shed light on: documenting the expansive reach of the justice system (by reporting such statistics as the annual rate of incarceration, the rate of supervision, and the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent); documenting the concentrations of the justice footprint (by using geo-coded data to transform individual arrest records into a community-level understanding); documenting racial disparities (by reporting, for example, the concentration of enforcement activities in certain neighborhoods or the impact prison terms have on the lives of men in communities of color); redefining success and failure beyond recidivism (and instead regularly measuring employment, success in school, health outcomes, familial relationships, or community participation); and calculating lives lost to incarceration (asking how we can create an accounting of our excessive use of punishment, particularly through long prison terms).

Sitting in the audience during Travis’ speech was Major Jennie Temple, a state member of SEARCH who leads the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Criminal Justice Information Services. Her state — along with Maine, New Jersey, and New York — has been one of the first to provide its complete criminal history database to SEARCH to start the research process.

And while her primary goal in doing so was to have SEARCH analyze the data for operational purposes — creating a dashboard that will allow South Carolina to perform inquiries on their data and determine if there are any holes in the workflow — she agrees with Travis that making the data available for deeper research could be useful.

“I see the benefit of what he’s talking about, and if states can provide data to address their research needs, I think that’s good; it’s mutually beneficial,” said Temple, whose agency already makes data available for criminal justice research, particularly regarding recidivism. “I certainly don’t have an issue with providing our data as long as it’s the de-identified portion. I’m happy that we’re able to provide that service so they can continue their own research.”

Travis doesn’t expect every state to be as receptive to his charge — he realizes the toll extra work can take on any agency — but said his ultimate goal in his speech was to help establish an agenda for the next decade, and he realizes that will take time.

“This is imagining things beyond the day-to-day operations of these agencies, and some may feel like it’s a step too far because they can’t quite see how it’s possible,” Travis said. “But for others, they might say, we can’t do this now, but let’s think about where can we find a university partner. I don’t expect at all that this agenda will be immediately comfortable for everybody. Just the opposite. I hope that [it makes them] think more expansively about what’s possible.”

Custodians of the Data

Another reason it’s critical for the state data repository directors to be invested in the research component, Roberts said, is that criminal justice reform could affect what becomes of the valuable data they are custodians of.

“A lot of the reform initiatives are trying to implement these changes systematically, like automatic expungement of records after one year, two years, whatever the provision is, and that has big implications for how the repositories manage the data,” Roberts said. 

If records are wiped clean, that can endanger future research and skew results. By opening up the conversation to include repository directors, they can provide context to reformers about how the record-keeping systems are built and what they look like and explain the importance of retaining that data — if only for research purposes.

“Repository directors don’t necessarily have a stand regarding the reform efforts, what the reform efforts are trying to do; they don’t have an official position on that,” Roberts said. “What they are really concerned about is, let’s make sure we have really solid, quality data so all of these efforts are informed.”

Travis raised this issue in his keynote Tuesday, noting that calls for reform can have significant implications for those government officials who maintain the criminal history repositories.

“Which records, if any, should be expunged, and why? Should all history be erased and not even available for research purposes? Should this history be off-limits for historians? How should we balance the operational value of these records for investigative and crime-solving purposes against the calls for a ‘clean slate’?”

There are many questions that face SEARCH as it pursues its research initiative. But Roberts is excited about the role the group can play in the reform movement.

“It’s just this incredibly rich source of data that’s mostly untapped,” Roberts said. “And it provides a broad landscape for robust research and to address issues we simply haven’t been able to address before.”