Data + Justice Project

Start Date: June 2020

Portfolio: Data + Digital

Stage: Incubation

Summary + Problem Statement

In the United States today, over 2.3 million people sit behind bars in local, state, and federal prisons and jails. 10.6 million people pass through local jails over the course of a single year, the vast majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime. The burden of mass incarceration disproportionately falls on lower-income and minority communities, and poses staggering economic, social, political and community costs.

One group of criminal justice actors makes the decisions that have an outsized effect on rising incarceration rates in America: local prosecutors. 87% of America’s prisoners are prosecuted at the local level. Local prosecutors make the decisions of who to charge, what charges to bring, whether to seek pretrial detention, what plea bargains to offer, and what sentences to recommend. Their decisions, more than any other criminal justice actor, determine who is incarcerated and for how long.

And yet, in most jurisdictions, prosecutors still make most of these crucial decisions based on “gut” and personal experience, rather than on data or clear guidelines. These decisions – often affected by implicit bias and structural inequalities – overwhelmingly and disproportionately affect lower-income and minority communities and lead to unnecessary and prolonged incarceration. The decisions of prosecutors have been a key driver in the rise in longer sentences, without appreciable gains in community safety or “justice.”

Researchers and reformers have long sought to understand how prosecutors make decisions in order to inform fairer and more just results. However, data addressing how and why prosecutors make key decisions remain, almost uniformly, unavailable to researchers and the public.

Project Elements

Solution/Idea

The Data + Justice Project, in conjunction with Justice Innovation Lab, will conduct innovative qualitative and quantitative research into prosecutorial decision-making with a goal of reducing incarceration and racial disparities and improving effectiveness and fairness of justice in their jurisdictions.

Justice Innovation Lab and the Beeck Center have partnered with the chief prosecutor in Charleston, SC, to conduct quantitative and qualitative research into prosecutorial decision making. We are analyzing existing prosecutorial data to understand key criminal justice metrics – such as dismissal rates, time-to-disposition, indigent pretrial detention, diversion completion, and racial disparities. Our project analyzes existing data to identify drivers of injustice in the system and proposes and implements policy changes to improve the performance on identified metrics.

Implications

Working Towards a More Just System. Most prosecutors want to do better. Real criminal justice reform requires helping local prosecutors make better decisions. The Data + Justice Project brings together teams of prosecutors, data scientists, and community members who analyze existing prosecutorial data to understand what drives disparities in a jurisdiction and to propose and implement solutions. The goal of our work is to improve prosecutorial decision making to reduce excessive incarceration, improve the success of alternatives to incarceration, and reduce racial disparities.

Facts Matter. You can’t fix what you don’t measure. The Data + Justice project identifies and measures performance on key criminal justice metrics, such as dismissal rates, time-to-disposition, indigent pretrial detention, diversion completion, and racial disparities in plea bargains and sentencing. By collecting and analyzing case data, we can measure performance over time and identify and address the root causes of inequalities in the system. 

Criminal Justice is Local. The reality is that there is no single “criminal justice system,” but rather multiple, independent, local systems of justice. Fixing the criminal justice system requires focusing on changes at the county and city levels, where 87 percent of criminal cases are handled. Making real change requires understanding local contexts and working closely with local partners to address each jurisdiction’s unique drivers of inequality. 

Focus on Prosecutors. Prosecutors are uniquely placed to have the broadest impact on criminal justice reform. Because they decide who to charge, what charges get filed, and what sentences are recommended, prosecutors have the greatest ability to influence criminal justice outcomes. We work with prosecutors to make better decisions with the ultimate goal of achieving both fairness and public safety. 

Redefining What Justice Means. The duty of the prosecutor is not to win cases, but to see that justice is done. For far too long, “justice” has been measured primarily by the number of convictions and length of sentences. We aim to help prosecutor’s offices think more broadly about what justice means and set goals towards achieving a fairer criminal justice system. We also aim to help offices increase and improve alternatives to prosecution, such as diversion programs and restorative justice options.

Policy Change is Not Enough. Top-down reforms are not sufficient to change practice. The partnership with Justice Innovation Lab will enable close work with senior management and line prosecutors to ensure policies can be effectively implemented.

It Takes a Village. Inequalities in the criminal justice system are long-standing and persistent. Making change requires forming a broad coalition to identify and implement solutions. The partnership with the Justice Innovation Lab brings together data scientists, criminal justice actors, policy experts, community advocates, and organizational psychologists, who bring their unique skill sets and perspectives to the goal of designing a better system.

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People on this project

Jared Fishman

Fellow, Data + Digital
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Cori Zarek

Director of Data + Digital
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Taylor Campbell

Deputy Director, Data + Digital
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Vandhana Ravi

Program Associate, Data + Digital
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