'Justice Counts' Assembling Statewide Justice Data

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 - 1:27pm

Criminal justice policy makers long have been plagued by a lack of good data on how the justice system operates, from arrests to imprisonments. In an effort to fill many of the gaps, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) has launched a project called Justice Counts that will provide state-by-state numbers on important parts of the justice process. A website under development for the last year is expected in June to begin displaying numbers from state corrections systems, including counts of prisoners and people on probation and parole. 

In the past, such national data has been available on a consistent basis from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects it from the states but often publishes it a year or more later, making it immediately out of date.

CSG says that overall, "by the time it reaches the desks of policymakers, data related to jails, probation, and crime is often outdated—months or sometimes years old. Even when criminal justice agencies are able to gather data promptly, they lack the time, ability, or mandate to paint a complete picture. Information is scattered across multiple offices and departments, rarely consolidated in a way that is useful for the people working to improve how the system functions. Decision-makers are left with a muddled, incomplete sense of what’s really happening."

The new corrections data to be published should be timely after a year in which there have been more shifts than usual in prison and jail populations during the coronavirus pandemic, with many states and localities freeing inmates in advance of their expected release dates.

CSG staffers gave a preview of the new site on Tuesday to a webinar sponsored by the National Association of Sentencing Commissions and the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University 

All states were asked to provide data to the central site. It is not yet available on a uniform basis because states compile it at different intervals, whether daily, weekly or monthly.

As of now, CSG has current prison population data from 36 states and numbers on various aspects of corrections, such as the number of state prisoners sent by courts or behind bars because they violated parole conditions, from varying numbers of states, ranging from seven in one category to 19 in another.

Eventually, the website will feature metrics such as the cost of corrections systems and whether they are achieving their goals.

Representatives of two states already have posted corrections data told webinar participants how they were compiled and presented. The Kansas Sentencing Commission, for example, has posted this dashboard showing trends in state prison population.

The commission's Scott Schultz said that the state has millions of records about criminal cases but their distribution formerly was limited to hard-copy reports. "You can slice and dice a lot of this information better" now that it is online, he said.

Kansas also maintains a dashboard on drug cases that shows breakdowns of sentences imposed and types of drugs involved, among other measures.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has posted a dozen dashboards showing various kinds of criminal justice data, including trends in crime, drug offenses, imprisonment and recidivism.

"The goal of this project is to connect public safety officials with useful and timely data," the commission says. "We hope this interactive look at criminal justice trends informs both statewide and local discussions about public safety."

The Justice Counts project is funded by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and is being supported by 21 criminal justice associations and projects nationwide.

These include Measures for Justice, which last month unveiled a website featuring detailed data on prosecutions from Yolo County, Ca., near Sacramento.

The "Commons" project was described by Crime and Justice News.


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