There is rampant injustice hidden in plain sight in our criminal justice system. The news occasionally highlights certain criminal justice patterns for us – police shootings in Chicago, a debtor’s prison system in Ferguson, Missouri, scores of wrongful convictions in Texas. But our information is always limited to high-profile, newsworthy trends because there are virtually no national statistics about criminal justice. There is no uniform way to track important questions like to what degree does race play a factor in how high bail is set? Or are prosecutors charging poor people more aggressively than people with wealth? Or are there differences based on race, sex or class status between how often charges are reduced? In a country that is powerfully driven by data about just about everything, the nonexistence of this criminal justice data is a telling lapse. Enter Measures for Justice, a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to finally bringing transparency to the criminal justice system.
Measures for Justice is creating user-friendly data from every county in six states, with the goal of expanding to more states over time. By measuring across-the-board statistics at the county level, from arrests to post-conviction, a wealth of information is newly available. Measures focus on performance vis a vis three neutral goals: public safety, fiscal responsibility and fair process. Measures for Justice’s motto sums up the importance of this information: No Data. No Change.
Quite simply, knowing exactly what is going wrong with the criminal justice system is going to be the strongest motivator for changing it. Our country has 15,000 state and local courts, 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, and more than two million prisoners, and each individual agency is doing its own thing. There’s no general information available about basics like who we prosecute, for what offenses, and why. In contrast, think about all of the national measures we have for the market, labor trends, school performance, and environmental data, not to mention television viewing, sports data, and all of the pop culture related stats. There is nothing comparable for the criminal justice system. And without that data, it can be harder to see the injustice.
For example, court diversion can be life-changing for people charged with a crime. Instead of being jailed, posting bail, having a trial, and being sentenced through the criminal justice system, court diversion allows the offender the opportunity to make amends outside the criminal justice system by paying restitution, performing community service, completing treatment, or other similar means and allows the offender to escape having a criminal record. In Pennsylvania during the time period measured (2012-13), white people were 72% more likely than people of color to be afforded the opportunity for court diversion for non-violent misdemeanors. Non-indigent people received the perk 75% more frequently than poor people. Non-indigent people were 29% more likely to receive a bail reduction than poor people. This is important information to track and make available to the public. On an individual level, an accused just knows that she was not offered court diversion or that her bail was not reduced. With the bigger picture, however, we can fight the wider injustice of the system.
One of the most startling things about the Measures for Justice data is that it does not already exist. The cynic in me believes that the reason is, sadly, obvious – the statistics reveal that the disenfranchised and less powerful members of our society get shafted, while the deck is stacked in favor of rich, white people. Since the government perpetuates that system, why would it gather the evidence to prove the injustice?