For the past six years, Measures for Justice has been hard at work on a dream tool for policy analysts, journalists and criminal justice activists. The tool, a free criminal justice data portal that so far covers over 300 counties in six states—with more on the way—will be launched next week. Lead funders for the project include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Google.org and the MacArthur Foundation.
The founder and director is Amy Bach, a member of the New York Bar and a journalist who has written for The Nation, The American Lawyer and New York Magazine, among other publications. She chats with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie about how her journalism background led to creating the nation’s first ambitious attempt to gather county-level data on the criminal justice system, how journalists and policymakers can use it, and why she believes it will make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans.
The Crime Report: How did your career in journalism lead to an enormous data collection project?
Amy Bach: In 2009, I wrote a book called Ordinary Injustice; How America Holds Court. I sat in many courtrooms across America, and I learned how it was possible for people in the justice system who have the very best intentions to turn a blind eye to enormous problems, because they couldn’t see what was going on. It’s not their fault— they don’t have data. People can’t compare themselves to a county next door, they have no idea how they’re doing. The conclusion of the book says we have to find a way to measure justice, and put it in a form so that everyone can see it.
Every civic institution uses data to monitor performance, right? There are basic measures for hospitals, like mortality rates; in schools, you’ve got test scores. And all of this data can be accessed by anyone. But people in the system in criminal justice don’t have those tools. If you wanted to assess your physical health– what’s your BMI? What’s your heart rate, what’s your blood pressure? Together, these give us a sense of where we need to focus our attention.
The same applies to all of the work in the criminal justice system. We need the criminal justice system measures to get a picture of how various [local] criminal justice systems are working. There are more than 3,000 counties in America, and each one has its own criminal justice system. Right now, we focus on whatever’s on the front page: if there are shootings in Chicago, if there are bail problems in Houston. But is that really what’s going on in America? We don’t know, because we haven’t had measures to go across counties and we haven’t had the data.
We’re non-partisan, non-profit, and we’re dedicated to bringing transparency to criminal justice, to enable more informed discussions and decision-making. And these are the things that are really different about us: we do the whole system, from arrests to post-conviction, and we do it on the county level.
All the performance measures go toward one of three neutral goals: public safety, fiscal responsibility and fair process. So the idea is if you’re a money person, there’s something for you in fiscal responsibility. If you’re a public safety person, if you don’t want someone hurting your neighborhood, you get that. If you believe that people should be treated based on due process no matter what the color of your skin, there are fair process measures.
What’s revolutionary about our work is that we’re bringing this to the county level for the first time.
TCR: How did you identify the measures that you’ve chosen?
AB: Measures for Justice was founded in 2011, and the first thing that we did was bring together a “Data Council.” These were people who are experts in local measurement in the United States. They came to our offices in Rochester, NY, and we ended up hiring some of [them] after we got some funding, and then we created two more councils.
The councils have some of the best people in the US— for example, we’ve got the two former heads of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jim Lynch and Bill Sabol. We’ve got the former head of the National Institute of Justice, and Michael Jacobson, who’s head of the Institute for State and Local Governance, which manages the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. They’ve gone through many, many versions of the measures to figure out what is a valid measure…
TCR: Did you have a wish list, or did you begin with data that was possible to find?
AB: The very first outside council came up with a group of dream measures. Then, we tried to find a county that we could get data for against the measures…so we started in Milwaukee County, because one of the members of our data council was John Chisholm, the District Attorney. We started collecting all of the available data— prosecutor data, public defender data—and then we saw that there was a state database with something called the administrative office of the court, and we got that too. In that database, we found data for about 70% of our measures—so instead of measuring Milwaukee, we measured 72 counties.
Then we created more measures, and eliminating others, as we tried to figure out what was valid and possible. We went to every county in Wisconsin, and tried to get prosecutor and public defender and sheriffs’ data. Then we keep on showing it to people in the state, in the counties, saying “here’s some analysis, does this make sense to you?”
We showed it prosecutors, public defenders, representatives of the courts, judges. We also were funded by the Department of Justice to do a stakeholder initiative, where we went to five counties and showed them their data, and got feedback and input to make the measures better. Then, we had many other people who reviewed the portal over and over again to make sure everything was right. And if something wasn’t right, we eliminated it or qualified it, or refined it.
TCR: Is this meant to be a policy tool? Who is it meant for, and how do you expect people to use the portal?
AB: It’s meant for everyone, and that’s really important. It’s meant for insiders, people who work in the system for example; [But it’s also] meant for people who want to write about the justice system, or for anybody who is a citizen [and] has felt that they want to understand their justice system more, or has felt that there is something that needs to be improved. They can look now and see patterns.
We went to one prosecutor in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and he noticed when we showed him his data that poor people were failing to pay low bail at a much higher rate than rich people. And this might seem intuitive, but he figured out that poor people were being detained simply because they were poor, and not because they were a flight risk, or [endangering] public safety.
So he decided that poor defendants who were jailed for failing to pay low bail over the weekend or holidays didn’t need a prosecutor to present his or her probable cause hearing, which means judges can free these defendants if they want much earlier. The result is that the county treats defendants more equitably while saving itself $64,000.
There will be many, many stories of people using our data to notice things. And sometimes they’re doing things well: one prosecutor in Utah noticed that his prosecutors were reducing charges less often than the state average, and that they had fewer dismissed cases than the state average. The portal allowed him to verify that his team was making good decisions up front. That’s a huge goal.
There’s a story in [my] book about a public defender who pleads 48 people guilty in a day, and thinks he’s doing a great job because speed equals success. Is that really the right measure, or is there another measure? That’s what Measures for Justice is about.
TCR: What’s been surprising about this process?
AB: I think that prosecutors are going to be our early adapters. They enjoy playing with the data, they’re creative, gregarious, and want to do better. We didn’t realize that when we started out. If you are a prosecutor, and you see an issue through our data, you can always go to your community and say, look—there was no way for me to know this before, [and] here’s what I’m going to do about it. And that’s the idea of Measures for Justice.
TCR: What’s an example of some measures that are still not possible to get?
AB: What’s the … [the number of] people held for failing to pay low bail, or [those who have had charges reduced], or cases dismissed? Another important thing to know is that we have filters. You scroll across the page, and you pick some counties— you can pick counties in a state, or among states– so you could compare Raleigh to Milwaukee to Seattle. Then, you pick a measure: for instance, people held on bail for under $500. And then you can filter the measure by race: white vs. non-white, sex, indigent vs. non-indigent, age, and type of attorney, type of crime, or level of crime.
TCR: Everything that you’re saying about how the justice system is blind due to lack of data seems to apply equally to the media.
AB: Now, journalists will have a way to look across the entire state, tell stories, and find stories that they never could have before. In order to do this project, you have to have enormous experience in criminal justice data, and substantial resources, [and now] we’re bringing those resources to everybody— whether you’re a journalist, or somebody who works in the community, or someone who is a concerned citizen or an advocate.
Imagine that your whole life depends on this. Imagine that you’ve got a family, you’ve got kids at home, and you’ve been arrested for a misdemeanor. And it’s your first crime, you haven’t had any previous arrests in the past 3 years, and you think that all the white people, or people with means get diverted, but you’re not being diverted. And you think there’s something wrong, but you can’t prove it. How could you possibly prove the disparity?
Now there’s a single measure where you can. and not only can you do it in your county, you can do it in the county next door, the county above you, the county to the south, the county to the east, and you can look across the whole state. And if you think it’s messed up in your state, you can compare it to another state. It’s the first time that you can be able to reach into the heart of America and ask, “How are we doing?”
Editors’ Note: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, TCR’s publisher, is holding a special symposium next month (June 12-13) to train journalists in using the portal . Interested reporters can apply to attend through this link. Space is limited.
Victoria Mckenzie is deputy editor of The Crime Report. TCR will make the portal available online via Measures for Justice after the launch. Readers’ comments are welcome.