Is There a Data Collection Problem in the Justice System?

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Illustration by KamiPhuc via Flickr.

The current state of criminal justice data collection and availability across the country is in a “dismal state” and lacks overall transparency, according to a new revealing report from Measures for Justice. 

In most cases across the country, certain data regarding the justice system — like demographic data of arrests and incarceration, pre-trial and bail information, as well as release data — simply isn’t collected, or isn’t available to researchers because of law or administrative protection. 

Because of this lack of transparency, advocates argue that it limits their ability to inform decisions about policy, and trust the system and its current state.

The country’s criminal justice data infrastructure is antiquated and crumbling,” reports The Hill in a recent article co-authored with Arnold Ventures regarding the latest Measures for Justice report. “State by state, we cannot track information about the people who are processed through our courts and jails.”

This alarming revelation was made possible by the extensive research and methodology of Measures for Justice, which collected data from 20 states, covering more than 1,200 counties that have centralized data systems, “allowing for the most complete measurement of state criminal court systems to date.” 

Beyond looking at data from everything from arrest to post-conviction, the researchers outlined that for lasting and meaningful change to occur for the systemic problems in the justice system, we need community engagement buy-in, data supported by quality research that’s then used to assess where we can improve the system, according to the report. 

Some key findings of the report include the fact that every state analyzed was missing significant data for key measurements. 

Moreover, of the 20 states analyzed, only Alabama, Pennsylvania and Indiana had reliable data available on “indigent” defendants, otherwise known as individuals who need aid because they don’t have the means to hire a private attorney. This is a critical gap, the researchers write, noting that close to 70 percent of cases across the country are closed with a public defender, the need might be much greater than currently understood. 

Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were the only two states of the analyzed group where researchers found pretrial practice data, and that was limited at best. 

Fortunately, local politicians across the aisle are stepping up to improve state-level systems data collection. Since 2011, Utah passed no fewer than 12 data laws — most recently a bill that impacts what law enforcement data is collected, and dictates what purpose its use for evidence-based decision making, The Hill details. 

Similarly, Florida passed an incredibly “forward thinking” data transparency law that requires contributors to provide defined justice data and statistics to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), paving the way for new data to be uncovered, according to the Criminal Justice Data Transparency website.   

While these changes are meaningful, local agencies and advocates argue that they need the federal government’s leadership and support. 


The researchers argue that the nation needs to make strides on three fronts to help solve the country’s criminal-justice data crisis on a local and federal level.  

To begin, they write that there needs to be an increase in data legislation, along with an increase in data collection standards. Measures for Justice found that this starts with finding out what data a state or county has, and identifying what they don’t, in order to fill in the gaps. 

Next, the researchers write that communities and practitioners must be equipped with their own data collecting tools, and that individuals need to be empowered to collect data in their everyday jobs whether they’re police officers, prosecutors or court officers. 

Lastly, the researchers note courts can also standardize their data analysis by joining the National Open Court Data Standards (NODS) initiative and make that information continuously available to researchers and reformers alike. 

Without a solid foundation for evidence-based policymaking, it becomes impossible to track outcomes,” the authors argue in their report. “Reform is stifled. Racial discrepancies continue. Failed promises and opaque systems undermine public trust.”

The report concludes, detailing, “We challenge state lawmakers and the federal government to fund and modernize data infrastructure, mandate data transparency, and adopt national data standards.”

The full report can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: How Data-Based Policies Can Help the Formerly Incarcerated Win a ‘Second Chance’

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