The U.S. Department of Justice has created a new tool that it, and its partners, hope will improve access, understanding and quality of data on the criminal justice system.
At a virtual launch event on Jan. 26, representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and partner organizations unveiled the new initiative, Justice Counts.
U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta explained that while lawmakers receive timely and complete data for many public policy issues, “criminal justice is another story.” Gupta explained that “the data we have about public safety, whether it’s information about arrest rates, jail populations or probation and parole, is often months if not years old.” And in many cases, newer data exists, Gupta said, but no one has had the time or resources to analyze it and share findings.
Justice Counts hopes to better inform lawmakers and policy makers about the criminal justice system by aggregating up-to-date data already collected by state and local agencies. Currently, Justice Counts has data on prison, jail and post-release supervision populations but plans to include more data from law enforcement, corrections facilities and courts. A steering committee of state and local professionals involved in the criminal justice system plans to release metrics in the spring on what other data will be collected.
The initiative is still in early stages. Representatives from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Council of State Governments Justice Center explained that completing the data will be a multi-year effort involving state and local agencies from across the country. In addition to running the website, the BJA and CSG will provide technical support to agencies that can input their most recent data to the Justice Counts platform.
“Our next step is to work with our partners to develop a set of metrics and tools to enable this for every part of the system,” said Gupta. “Then we can help states apply this data to their decision making.”
The panel at Wednesday’s launch event included Georgia Supreme Court’s Presiding Justice Michael Boggs, Captain Lee Eby, an Oregon jail commander, Iowa Department of Corrections Director Beth Skinner and Connecticut State Representative Toni Walker.
Eby and Skinner explained that their agencies regularly collect detailed data on prisoner and parole populations as well as various corrections facility programs and policies. But much of this data is not publicly available or accessible for lawmakers, something they hope Justice Counts will change.
“The one question that we get a lot here [in Oregon] is [what are] the underlying rates of substance addiction and mental health disorders of those people who are involved in the criminal justice system,” explained Eby. “Oftentimes this data is across both jail information, public health information, hospitals,” he added, explaining that he hopes Justice Counts will make aggregating this information easier to better inform programs addressing issues like mental health and addiction.
Skinner added that the Iowa Department of Corrections regularly gets requests from lawmakers and others for data that is collected but not available publicly. Some of that information, like average length of stay, can help lawmakers with creating and assessing policy since “it directly relates to population management, budgeting, movement and re-entry.”
On the other side of policy, Walker explained that having current justice system data can help lawmakers identify trends in the criminal justice system and then address any inequities. Walker added that using already collected data is important since it allows her and others to see historic trends and ensure policy is moving data in the right direction.
The panelists said they are excited for Justice Counts since it will help inform policy and help them understand how their agency compares to others in the state and across the country.
A challenge behind criminal justice data can be that different agencies use different definitions or collection techniques for data points, like recidivism. Justice Counts will standardize some of that data to allow agencies and policy makers to compare data across state and local agencies. “It’s not a lot of apples to apples, it’s often a lot of apples to oranges,” said Skinner, adding that the new initiative is an opportunity to make more level comparisons.
Other challenges with collecting and using criminal justice system data, the panel explained, include that obtaining a full picture of the criminal justice system requires extensive inter-agency data and communication, which takes time, department resources and can be generally difficult. Justice Counts hopes to combat this decentralized data approach with the new platform, aiding in overall communication deficiencies.
“The better equipped we are with timely data, the more effective we can be serving our communities and the better able we will be to secure the trust of those we serve,” said Gupta. “We’re already on the road to achieving this elusive and important goal, the data scan on the justice counts website serves as a blueprint for what we’re hoping to accomplish.”
The panel encouraged anyone with a stake or interest in the criminal justice system to sign up for the Justice Counts newsletter. Agencies involved in the criminal justice system can reach out to Justice Counts to learn how they can contribute data to and benefit from the new program.