The Power and Problem of Criminal Justice Data: A Twenty State Review

Despite accounting for a substantial portion of local, state, and federal budgets, our criminal justice institutions are among the least measured systems in our country. In an effort to bring transparency to this sector, MFJ has collected, standardized, and made public 20 states' worth of criminal justice data.

The purpose of this report is to share what we have learned through this effort, including: (a) what we cannot see when data are missing, and (b) the value that data can provide when they are available and comparable. In particular, we identify patterns around the following:

  • There is a substantial lack of data around pretrial detention and release decision-making, as well as individual demographics (particularly indigence).
  • New data privacy laws are also making it needlessly difficult to obtain certain data. This poses challenges to understanding how individuals experience the system in cases that do not result in conviction.
  • There is great variation in how counties dispose of and sentence nonviolent cases; how financial obligations are imposed on individuals; and the collateral consequences that individuals face when convicted.
  • Across many of these findings, where demographics are available, we have an opportunity to identify and respond to significant disparities in group outcomes.

This report challenges stakeholders and policymakers to dig deeper into these patterns and missing data. It also implores policymakers and legislators to improve criminal justice data infrastructure to ensure a more transparent, fair, and equitable implementation of justice.

This report was created with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, which seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

Key Findings

Of twenty states where we collected data, only two, Wisconsin & Pennsylvania, had pretrial practices data, and these were limited at best.

Defendant indigent status was unavailable for seventeen of the twenty states we’ve looked at.

New data privacy laws should still provide anonymized access to data for research purposes.

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