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We Need Criminal Justice Data That Doesn’t Exist. Here’s How the Biden Administration Can Fix It.

One of the most notorious process problems with America’s criminal justice system is the lack of data. For an institution charged with administering justice and responsible for decisions that profoundly impact people’s lives, it is frighteningly antiquated when it comes to collecting and analyzing data. Experts say long-term, sustainable change is doomed if we can’t track our changes and their impacts.

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Since the protests of summer 2020, there has been an upswell of political momentum for criminal justice reform. More than 2,300 bills have been introduced since the summer in the area of policing reform alone. However, experts warn that we won’t be able to effectively target reforms, or measure whether they work, unless we have rigorous research and data about our criminal justice systems. For years, criminologists and other experts have made the point that criminal justice data is so scarce or unreliably reported that in most jurisdictions, we can barely come up with a simple count of the number of people charged with misdemeanors each year. 

Today Arnold Ventures released a list of six recommendations for how the new Biden administration could improve criminal justice data and research in order to support reform. The report is the product of an expert roundtable that we organized with the guidance of Jane Wiseman from the Harvard Kennedy School, and it has been signed by over 25 national experts. The report addresses the Biden administration because the federal government must take the leadership role on this issue — indeed, a major problem with criminal justice data is that there are many thousands of county and state agencies reporting data in inconsistent ways (or not at all). 

The report’s recommendations at a glance:

  • The Biden administration should establish a National Commission on Criminal Justice Data Modernization. This Commission would produce an official federal report on criminal justice data, along with building a roadmap on specific ways that federal and state governments should modernize the way they measure, collect, and report criminal justice data.
  • The Biden administration should create a major push for data transparency. For example, it could publish a dashboard that rates police departments based on how transparent they are. For another example, it could improve data transparency at federal agencies, and then encourage states to adopt data transparency laws. Better data won’t make much difference unless it is made freely available in a transparent fashion.
  • The Biden administration should increase funding for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This federal agency tracks and publishes a lot of important data, but its funding has been reduced substantially since 2010 for no good reason. The Bureau would be much better able to do its job, and even increase the pace at which it publishes national statistics, if funding were increased or at least kept pace with inflation.
  • There are a number of ways the federal government can leverage its funding power to improve data quality. For example, the federal government could provide incentive funding to states that improve data quality and adopt better standards for reporting and collecting data. It could also fund research and technical assistance on data quality metrics and how to implement them.
  • The Biden administration should create connections between data systems to foster data sharing and cross-system coordination. Too much data exists only in silos — that is, the many thousands of county jails, courthouses, police agencies, prisons, etc., across the country. That makes it often next-to-impossible to figure out the totality of what happened to any one person — i.e., to connect their arrest record, jail record, court data, prison record, and parole office data all together. The federal government should create a secure cloud-based platform for combining federal data, and should encourage states to do likewise.
  • The federal government should make strides in improving criminal justice system technology. Many of the data systems used across the country are outdated or technologically inadequate. The federal government could lead the way in developing guidance on how data systems should operate, and should mandate that any software bought with federal dollars be able to produce high-quality data that can be easily shared across systems.

While these recommendations only scratch the surface of the enormously difficult problem of creating high-quality criminal justice data across the United States, the report does provide a roadmap for the federal government to make dramatic improvements in our ability to understand how the criminal justice system works — and how it can work better.