The effort to bring about effected criminal justice reforms in the US is being hindered by the lack of data about the justice system at the county level. There are more people locked away in local jails and state prisons than in federal prisons. And for the more than 3,000 counties in the US, there is no “common standard” against which criminal justice reforms can be measured.
Opinion writer Amy Bach deplores the lack of public and valid data to inform decisions about criminal justice reform in this article from USAToday:
Yet, unlike our ability to assess many federal reforms, it’s virtually impossible to know whether reforms at the county level are working. Data about local criminal justice is often incredibly limited, inconsistent and not easily accessible to the public or policymakers.
There are more than 3,000 counties in America and at least three times as many agencies that record county data. But there’s no common standard to evaluate or compare information on how well the justice system is keeping the public safe and whether we’re seeing fair justice outcomes at the local level.
There is also no uniformity across or within states specifying the type of data elements that are collected or how they are defined. And many local agencies still don’t have access to computerized systems to track cases. It is very difficult to evaluate how the system is working, and make good decisions as a result without solid, consistent data.
In the past three decades, most of the research that has emerged using criminal justice data has depended on case studies, often focusing on the largest jurisdictions, which tend to have better data. But little is known about what transpires outside of the largest urban areas.
Too many counties across the USA can’t answer basic questions: Who is getting access to pretrial diversion programs? What percentage of defendants are in jail for failing to pay low bail amounts? How many people are getting their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked as part of their sentences? Are tax dollars being spent efficiently on proven methods that reduce crime? What are the racial and socioeconomic disparities across all of these outcomes?