Moneyballing Criminal Justice

Anne Milgram in the Atlantic: “…One area in which the potential of data analysis is still not adequately realized,however, is criminal justice. This is somewhat surprising given the success of CompStat, a law enforcement management tool that uses data to figure out how police resources can be used to reduce crime and hold law enforcement officials accountable for results. CompStat is widely credited with contributing to New York City’s dramatic reduction in serious crime over the past two decades. Yet data-driven decision-making has not expanded to the whole of the criminal justice system.

But it could. And, in this respect, the front end of the system — the part of the process that runs from arrest through sentencing — is particularly important. Atthis stage, police, prosecutors, defenders, and courts make key choices about how to deal with offenders — choices that, taken together, have an enormous impact on crime. Yet most jurisdictions do not collect or analyze the data necessary to know whether these decisions are being made in a way that accomplishes the most important goals of the criminal justice system: increased public safety,decreased recidivism, reduced cost, and the fair, efficient administration of justice.

Even in jurisdictions where good data exists, a lack of technology is often an obstacle to using it effectively. Police, jails, courts, district attorneys, and public defenders each keep separate information systems, the data from which is almost never pulled together and analyzed in a way that could answer the questions that matter most: Who is in our criminal justice system? What crimes have been charged? What risks do individual offenders pose? And which option would best protect the public and make the best use of our limited resources?

While debates about prison over-crowding, three strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences have captured public attention, the importance of what happens between arrest and sentencing has gone largely unnoticed. Even though I ran the criminal justice system in New Jersey, one of the largest states in the country, I had not realized the magnitude of the pretrial issues until I was tasked by theLaura and John Arnold Foundation with figuring out which aspects of criminal justice had the most need and presented the greatest opportunity for reform….

Technology could help us leverage data to identify offenders who will pose unacceptable risks to society if they are not behind bars and distinguish them from those defendants who will have lower recidivism rates if they are supervised in the community or given alternatives to incarceration before trial. Likewise, it could help us figure out which terms of imprisonment, alternatives to incarceration, and other interventions work best–and for whom. And the list does not end there.

The truth is our criminal justice system already makes these decisions every day.But it makes them without knowing whether they’re the right ones. That needs to change. If data is powerful enough to transform baseball, health care, and education, it can do the same for criminal justice….(More)”