The numbers are incontrovertible: Less than 5 percent of the world’s population—but nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population—lives in the United States. In other words, the United States is the industrial world’s most prolific jailer. Since the 1970s, incarceration rates and their associated costs have grown 400 percent, even though crime has been on the decline for two decades. These costs have strained county budgets and burdened taxpayers. Meanwhile, mass incarceration bankrupts families and often traps defendants in an endless cycle of crime and arrest, limiting their contributions to society.
Advocates clamoring for reform have historically had little reliable data to make the case for change. Comprehensive data on criminal justice performance just haven’t been available. Without them, policymakers have had no way to identify the failure points, let alone a blueprint to fix them. We know this firsthand from our work in the system—Carter as a federal prosecutor and former United States Attorney, and Amy as a journalist reporting on criminal justice, an attorney, and founder of a legal nonprofit.
When we started our nonprofit, Measures for Justice (MFJ), six years ago, the knowledge gaps were clear. There weren’t answers to questions like: What are the average jail sentence lengths for low-level drug possession crimes? How many misdemeanor cases end in a jail sentence? How many cases are dismissed? What is the breakdown of ethnicities in plea deals and sentencing choices? As a result, legislators were unable to correct disparities in the system and remove inefficient practices that waste tax dollars without improving public safety. And law enforcement wasn’t able to adequately respond to claims of discrimination and civil rights violations. Former FBI Director James Comey specifically acknowledged this fact when he stated, “You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold [for] The Martian . . . The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] can do the same with the flu … it’s embarrassing and ridiculous that we can’t talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
Many people think solutions for problems like this are hard to find, but in truth, there are lots of good ideas that simply need resources to develop. At MFJ, our idea was ambitious: to measure the entire criminal justice system from arrest to post-conviction. We wanted to publish the facts that underpin the system on a free and public database that would let anyone easily and quickly assess how different states and countries are handling similar cases. In the process, we wanted to create full transparency for anyone interested in system performance. The US criminal justice system is incredibly fragmented; there are more than 3,000 counties, each with its own system. Few people believed we could pull data from such disparate sources in a way that was cohesive and uniform.
As a two-person, early-stage nonprofit, we piloted our idea in one county and demonstrated it was viable. But to scale the project across the country and build a team devoted entirely to the work, we needed a vast increase in resources. Though there were many no’s, we persisted and found a few critical yes’s. Funders like Echoing Green, The Bureau of Justice Assistance, Pershing Square Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation understood early on that data are foundational for all reform efforts. They knew first-hand how difficult it was to improve the performance of the criminal justice system without a way to gauge and track performance. And they understood that a young organization like MFJ was perfectly poised to undertake this work—with no allegiances to any political party or long-standing organization. We simply wanted to develop a way to assess performance and make our findings available to everyone. This early funding enabled us to tackle an ostensibly impossible task: to bring transparency, accountability, and more focused reform to the criminal justice system.
Last May, MFJ launched its first, free, online Data Portal with criminal justice data from more than 370 counties and six states. The data covers the entire system, from arrest to post-conviction. In most cases, users can filter by race/ethnicity, indigent status, sex, age, offense severity, and offense type. All data are comparable within and across states, and are downloadable or shareable for easy distribution. By 2020, MFJ will have 20 states in the Data Portal and, eventually, all 50. We could never have achieved as much without the early-stage funders that came to the table.
A look at some of MFJ’s criminal justice data points
Already, these data are having an impact. Criminal justice practitioners and legislators are beginning to rethink their practices and policies with an eye toward ensuring that they are meeting three systemic goals: public safety, fair process, and fiscal responsibility. In Wisconsin, for example, a prosecutor realized that more white defendants were being diverted from traditional prosecution than nonwhite defendants. This initiated an investigation into the county’s diversion practices. In Utah, a district attorney used the data to demonstrate that his prosecutors were doing a good job of handling cases, which resulted in the approval of four new hires.
When we started, few imagined that our idea would work, and yet here we are. System practitioners all over the six states represented in the Data Portal are using the data to make changes that impact communities for good. For us, early funding made the impossible, possible.