‘Alarming’ Staff Shortages Linked to Delays in Fed Crime Data

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Department of Justice

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Persistent delays in issuing crime data  by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have been compounded by an “alarming decline” in staffing, according to the nation’s two leading criminology groups.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance, representing the American Society of Criminology, and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences have asked for a meeting with top justice officials, including Katharine Sullivan,  who runs the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice, to discuss the issue.

In a letter dated March 11 requesting the meeting, the two groups renewed earlier criticism that “multiyear delays” in the release of  key statistics make  it difficult to gain an accurate, timely picture of national crime data.

The letter suggested the problem was compounded by staffing shortages  at BJS.

“Many in the criminal justice research community have heard of an alarming decline in the number of BJS staff as a consequence of hiring freezes, staff attrition, and failure to replace departing staff and experts,” said the letter,  which was also signed by Wendy Naus, Executive Director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the Washington, D.C., representative of a broad range of national research organizations.

The criminologists said that “workforce shortages” were affecting DOJ’s
ability to “provide critical crime and justice data in a timely manner.”

Criminologists began a dialogue with Sullivan last fall, writing that at least four major federal statistics reports had been delayed, including those on deaths in justice system custody, firearms background checks, law enforcement management. and detailed data from a 2016 survey of prison inmates.

Sullivan responded in January, saying that some “omissions and inconsistencies” in data collected by the agency “have taken considerable time and effort to fix.” She did not explain details of how the problems occurred.

She promised that “statistical briefs” from the inmate survey would be released in “early 2020,” but none has appeared publicly as of mid-March.

Criminal justice researchers and practitioners rely on timely and regular release of BJS data and statistics to understand crime trends, criminal behavior, victims of crime, disparities in justice, correctional systems, offender reentry, and the operation of justice at  federal, state, and local levels.

“Multiyear delays in the release of expected data and reports, and a lack of communication between BJS and the data user community, whose work depends on the timely release of BJS data, does not help improve public safety, or the efficiency of our criminal justice system,” the alliance said in its letter.

In her January response, Sullivan blamed the delay in producing one report—on deaths in prison, jail and police custody—on shifting responsibility for the report to another DOJ agency, the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

BJS determined that the law enforcement report was “unlikely to succeed” after a forensic science supplement to it was discontinued, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said BJS is continuing to fill gaps in its staffing but that the agency has had to prioritize which reports could be issued in the last year.

The criminologists’ new letter to Sullivan names four other statistical reports that have been delayed.

They are:

  • National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP). The program’s website calls it “annual” and “active” but lists the latest available data as from 2016. The criminologists asked whether any new data have been collected, and if so, when the agency will release them.
  • Survey of Jails in Indian Country (SJIC). The alliance says no data from the survey have been published for any year since 2016. BJS says it plans to publish a report this spring, but the criminologists ask the reason for the delay, citing “a three-year lag between data and release.”
  • Survey of Sexual Victimization (SSV) in adult prisons. A report was issued in 2018 for the years 2012-2015, but detailed tables are yet to be published and there is no indication when they will be, the criminologists said.

The alliance asked BJS to “communicate its plan to prioritize the release of data collections and reports.”

“Such data is necessary for timely development and implementation of criminal justice policy,” said the criminologists.

The alliance said it would continue to ask Congress for more funds for BJS.

For the fiscal year beginning in October, the White House asked Congress for $43 million to fund BJS. That total has been fairly steady for many years, and it is a minuscule part of the overall Justice Department budget of nearly $32 billion.

In 2009, an expert panel of the National Research Council, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, issued a report  on BJS that “identifies some major gaps in the substantive coverage of BJS data, but notes that filling those gaps would require increased and sustained support in terms of staff and fiscal resources.”

BJS staffing has changed considerably since that report was published, but the agency’s overall work has not changed dramatically and if anything has declined, as the criminologists suggest.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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