“We can’t change what we can’t see,” says court reformer Amy Bach, whose organization Measures for Justice (MFJ) is working to compile data it says will show how the criminal justice system is performing — and not performing — in handling cases from arrest to post conviction in all 3,124 counties across the nation.
For more than a decade, Bach has been delving into an area where few researchers tread: the county-level justice system. The work gets little notice, while politicians and the news media focus much attention on measures like the new federal First Step Act, which affects only a small part of the justice system.
While writing a book that has been featured in The Crime Report, Bach discovered that. as she wrote this month in USA Today, “Data about local criminal justice is often incredibly limited, inconsistent and not easily accessible to the public or policymakers.”
She added that there is “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.”
On Monday, Bach’s work got wider recognition when she received the Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual $100,000 award to a humanitarian under 50.
Philanthropist Bronfman, a Canadian-American perhaps best known for heading his family liquor company Seagram, said Bach had “revealed a critical gap in our criminal justice system, and she developed an ingenious method for filling it. She epitomizes the concern for social justice and entrepreneurial spirit that the prize recognizes.”
MFJ last year released comprehensive data on counties in six states, and hopes to complete data analysis for 14 more states by the end of next year. The eventual goal is to compile data covering the entire nation.
So far, the group has identified counties where no felony case has gone to trial in five years (everyone charged pleaded guilty, or the case was dismissed), where defendants of color are sentenced to jail for terms eight times longer than white defendants for the same kinds of drug crimes, where suspects are jailed for failing to pay bail as low as $500, and where more than 60 percent of defendants in misdemeanor cases plead guilty without the benefit of advice from an attorney.
Last month, Florida became the first state to adopt a statewide reform inspired by Bach’s work.
A new law requires every county to collect and report the same set of data elements about criminal justice, and for the state to create a centralized clearing house that will allow for comparisons of county-level trends.
The data will cover pretrial release decisions, differences in the handling of cases involving poor and affluent defendants, ethnicity of defendants, and which offenders are convicted of new offenses after being released from prison and probation.
Next on the reformers’ target list is California, where a bill has been introduced to require collection of similar data.
A report released last week by Stanford Law School in conjunction with MFJ found that that up to 60 percent of arrest records compiled by California’s Department of Justice are missing disposition information, including violent criminal histories that might inadvertently allow some offenders to acquire firearms.
California in 2011 overhauled its corrections system to house many inmates in county jails rather than state prisons, but the Stanford report said that, “California’s local criminal justice data infrastructure is inconsistent at best and, in some jurisdictions, almost non-existent. Challenges with data collection are exacerbated by the absence of statewide data definitions and other standards, which means that even where data are collected, they are often inconsistent and difficult to compare.”
Mikaela Rabinowitz of MFJ told the Los Angeles Times that the lack of data “creates a black box, and we have advocates and legislators across the spectrum promoting policy without actual information to drive that policy.”
At Bach’s award presentation Monday at the New York Historical Society, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, said it was refreshing that Bach’s project is being recognized in what Power called a “post-truth moment” in the U.S., featuring a “spread of falsehoods masquerading as facts.”
At the event, Bach took part in an on-stage conversation about her project with Sarah Koenig of the popular podcast “Serial,” which this past year featured a series of reports on how the courts operate in Cleveland. The podcasts explored court issues similar to those Bach is investigating.
Editor’s note: Koenig was a co-winner this year of The Crime Report’s “Justice Media Trailblazer award.”
Asked about the failure of public officials to document and take steps to prevent racial disparities in local justice systems, Bach commented that “people are afraid to look” for them. She also observed that many court-system shortcomings are not due to overt racial discrimination, but rather, “it’s really about poverty.”
As an example, Koenig quoted a judge in Cleveland as saying that bail amounts set by judges that poor defendants are unable to pay often are imposed “based on what we’ve always done,” which the judge said “makes no sense.”
It is that kind of practice that Measures for Justice aims at documenting nationwide.
Bach said that MFJ began with an anonymous $100,000 donation that she has used to attract millions of dollars in support. She hopes that the Bronfman Prize will help her obtain more resources for the project, which is based in Rochester, N.Y., and employs more than 30 staff members.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.