justice gavel courtroom

Criminal Justice | Data Analysis Is Driving Justice Reforms

By Alison Lawrence | July 31, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Criminal justice reform is sweeping the country and good data is key to its success.

Legislatures are examining every part of the system. They are improving pretrial practices, refining laws that dictate who goes to jail or prison and for how long, and requiring community supervision programs to adhere to proven, evidence-based principles. By analyzing state data, lawmakers are discovering what’s driving costs, where inequities exist in the system and how to identify who is incarcerated, how long they’ve been in and whether they should be there. That lets them focus policy on what the data reveals.

“Using the data-driven approach took the partisanship pretty much out of the equation,” says South Carolina Senator Gerald Malloy (D) about a 2010 sentencing reform package in his state. “When you have the numbers that make sense, then the political philosophies are subordinate. So, it’s not a Republican initiative, not a Democratic initiative—it’s a people initiative.”

Data showed that nearly one-quarter of prison admissions in South Carolina were due to supervision violations. A key provision of the reform bill created alternatives to prison for parolees who broke the rules of their supervision.

justice reinvestment initiative

Positive Momentum

Using data to inform policy decisions gained momentum in the early 2010s. South Carolina was one of the first states to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The initiative uses a three-step process to help states:

  • Collect data and analyze the factors driving prison growth and costs.
  • Develop and adopt policies addressing these factors.
  • Measure the impact of policy changes.

To date, at least 30 states have adopted laws using this process.

In Mississippi, which enacted reform laws in 2015 and 2019, Senator Briggs Hopson (R) says the measures were successful because they relied on data rather than emotion. “We’ve got the evidence to support what we’ve done in Mississippi,” he says. “It has been critical to maintaining the positive momentum.”

If a bill isn’t backed by evidence, it’s more likely to get weeded out. “Now, if you’ve got a bill that is the result of a knee-jerk reaction or a bad case in your district, the bill is much more prone to fail,” he says.

Here are the strategies legislatures are using to maintain momentum toward data-driven reform.

Creating Dashboards

After the Oregon Legislative Assembly passed reforms in 2013, lawmakers wanted a way to monitor the changes and their effects on the system. The state’s Criminal Justice Commission created online dashboards to graphically display measurements such as prison population, jail and community supervision populations, prison composition, crime and recidivism rates and corrections spending.

Senator Floyd Prozanski (D) watches the measures closely. “If we start seeing numbers not hitting specific targets,” he says, “then we can start looking at why and getting into underlying factors that could be affecting the situation.”

By 2018, the data indicated that a small population was cycling in and out of local jails and hospital emergency rooms, using a disproportionate share of resources and accounting for the majority of health care costs. These patients, known as “high utilizers,” had serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders, and their conditions were not improving. The situation was draining state and local resources. The legislature responded during the 2019 session with the People’s Access to Community-based Treatment, Supports and Services Program, which will provide an influx of resources targeting the needs of the high utilizers.

Tracking Performance Measures

Nationwide, most of the notable reform bills contain at least a dozen changes to the criminal code. This reflects lawmakers’ interest not only in systemic measures but also in knowing whether specific policy changes are working.

South Dakota lawmakers created a council to track the progress of the Public Safety Improvement Act, which they passed in 2013. Laurie Feiler, the state’s deputy secretary of corrections, currently heads the council. “I am often asked if the PSIA is working,” she says. But there is no simple answer. “The PSIA houses dozens of individual, yet interconnected, reforms with their own performance measures. A better question to ask is, Are the reforms on the right path to meet the goals and performance measures of the legislation?”

The act required the collection of performance data for provisions it created, such as earned discharge credits, which allow probationers and parolees who comply with their supervision to earn time off their sentences. In the law’s first five years, probationers and parolees have earned credits taking 7,500 years and more than 9,500 years, respectively, off their sentences.

Collecting Local Data

Core functions of the U.S. justice system—policing, prosecuting and jailing—are commonly funded and performed by cities and counties. The challenge for legislators is that local justice data, such as arrest rates, charging practices and jail populations, can be difficult to obtain; what’s more, the data is rarely comparable from one county to another.

Florida Representative Chris Sprowls (R) says he was unable to get answers to his most basic questions: “who was in jail, for what crimes and for how long.” In response, the legislature required counties to collect comprehensive justice data and submit it to a public repository. Effective Jan. 1 this year, “the ability to look at quantitative information about our criminal justice system will not only bring transparency,” Sprowls says, “it will guide our future decision-making.”

Not every state has uniform, comparable justice data to work with because of differences in what information localities collect and how it’s defined, along with technological barriers to sharing the information. Nevertheless, states are making headway. Colorado and Connecticut both enacted legislation in 2019 requiring that certain local data be collected. Colorado’s law focused on jails and jail populations and Connecticut’s on prosecutorial decisions.

A complementary effort is being performed by the nonprofit Measures for Justice, which gathers criminal justice data from every U.S. county and makes it available on a free public portal. Data for a handful of states is already available, and the group aims to have information on 20 states ready by the end of the year. In the absence of uniform statewide collection, this resource allows users to gauge how counties compare within a state.

Partnering With Experts

Building a criminal justice data infrastructure requires funding. Florida, for example, has so far appropriated more than $7 million to implement its law. But it also requires expertise. Besides Measures for Justice, there are other experts helping states move forward with their reforms.

Universities, for example, can lend students, professors and other resources to analyze how accurately proposed reforms reflect what the data is showing. Clemson University’s Institute for Economic and Community Development, which did an economic impact study on the first three years of South Carolina’s 2010 reform law, had the expertise to perform detailed research, says Malloy, the South Carolina senator. “They found a $37 million increase in the state’s gross domestic product,” he says. “The study dug deep to find how many children were not placed into foster care. That’s what I call a victory lap.”

Universities also can help set up data systems. The City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Government is working in 20 cities and counties that are part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. The institute has helped cities and towns create and track performance measures related to the goals of the foundation’s challenge, namely reducing jail populations and the disparities within them.

Doing Business in a New Way

Philanthropic organizations and federal agencies increasingly are focusing their resources on creating a data infrastructure to support sustainable reforms. In some cases, as with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and the Safety and Justice Challenge, they’re even requiring it.

And some say that’s not a bad thing. John Tilley has served in all three branches of Kentucky government at the state and local levels, including nearly a decade in the legislature and a turn as the state’s public safety secretary. His years of service have convinced him of the importance of using data.

“Decisions must be data-driven,” he says. “To ignore the evidence in favor of politics when crafting good public policy is to ignore the best practices that guide the daily operations of our billion-dollar departments which serve countless lives and communities. The data are indispensable.”

Alison Lawrence specializes in sentencing and corrections for NCSL.

Additional NCSL Resources