Data and Our Evolving Views of the Criminal Justice System

Crime data is playing an important part in reshaping views of the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice is a field where data plays an important role in shaping policy, public perception and evidence based practices.

Thanks to agencies ranging from the FBI to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Department of Human Services and Department of Corrections, there is data that tells the story of American law offenders and their journey through the system.

Now, in 2017, that crime data as it relates to the entire criminal justice system is being combined and explored in new ways that were unheard of two or three decades ago, and those explorations are yielding disturbing and enlightening truths about this country’s police departments, jails and the criminal rehabilitation process as a whole.

These data revelations are playing a major part in how we discuss criminal justice today, in news reports, courtrooms and the court of public opinion. To name and explore all the data sets that are reshaping our view of criminal justice would go beyond a single post.

Instead, we’ve included high profile examples of crime data sources for you to explore and examples of their insights.

Vera Institute: Rural Communities Driving Jail Growth

Using an aggregation of county-level data from around the country, the institute’s numbers show that the geography of incarceration has moved away from big cities to rural areas, a fact that seems counterintuitive to the narrative politicians often create.

The Incarceration Trends tool led to a report that revealed that counties with less than 250,000 people have driven overall jail growth since 1970. Urban jail populations have decreased over that time, while rural ones have risen partially due to two factors identified by the Bureau of Justice Statistics: pretrial detention rates and the number of people held for another jail.

Rural jails are over sized in many cases due to expansion. As the research shows, pretrial detention rates have been in congruence with the growing number of beds in these facilities. The pretrial detention method is due to jail expansion conflicting another national trend: decreasing crime rates. A blog post from Vera’s website outlined this trend with the following example.

“In Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, for example, a jail facility built in 1993 was intended to alleviate overcrowding. The new facility increased the jail capacity from 150 beds to up to 650—far more than the parish needed at the time. But soon enough, by 2008, the jail was full—and as the data show, the pretrial jail population (those legally presumed innocent while they await the resolution of their case) spiked and exceeded the statewide average. Earlier this year, the parish opened a women’s facility to make more room in the main jail.”

To explore Vera’s data further, check out the Incarceration Trends tool here.

Measures for Justice Exposes Courtroom Injustice

Using county-level data, this initiative aimed at showing what happens after arrest has a depth and reach that surpasses anything before it. You want to know how many cases resulted in reduced charges, were resolved at trial? Or the number of non-violent felonies sentenced to prison? This tool can show you through data visualization maps in six U.S. states: Florida, Washington, North Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

More states are submitting crime data as you read this. The effort is so impressive that it caught the attention of Silicon Valley execs, including Mark Zuckerberg, whose Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gave $6.5 million to Measures for Justice to expand it to include California.

Examples of the insights Measure for Justice has yielded include:

  • Of all people arrested for non-violent misdemeanors with no previous record in Winnebago, WI, white defendants are twice as likely to enter diversion programs as non-whites.
  • The median jail stay for nonviolent misdemeanors in FL was 60 days in 2012-13, double what those same offenders would face in WI and PA.
  • If you were arrested in Seattle from 2009-2013, you paid less in court fees than anyone else in the state of Washington. The median amount of fees charged to convicted defendants was $600 in affluent King County, compared to $1,400 in Yakima County, one of the poorest counties in the state during the same timeframe.

Learn more from Measures for Justice here.

United States Sentencing Commission Reveals Recidivism Realities

Examining data back to 2005 may not seem relevant, but what the USSC’s data analysis says about recidivism rates is startling. According to their reports, nearly one-third of offenders are re-convicted and one quarter are re-incarcerated.

The vast majority of rearrest offenses were nonviolent, and age was directly correlated with recidivism. Those released prior to the age of 21 were rearrested at a rate of nearly 67%. Those over the age of 60 at the time of release had a 16% chance of being rearrested. The graph below provides a comprehensive, cumulative view of the time to rearrest for all offenders in the study.

This graph shows the cumulative recidivism rate of offenders over an eight year period as studied by the United States Sentencing Commision.
This chart is from a United States Sentencing Commission’s report on recidivism rates.

For more information from the USSC’s analysis, check out the full report here.

Department of Corrections Data Shows Prejudice of Florida Judges

An investigative piece from the Sarasota Herald Tribune displayed disturbing numbers, pulled county by county from Department of Corrections data, revealing that judges in Florida routinely sentence African-Americans more harshly than their Caucasian counterparts.

In examining the state’s “points system,” the paper revealed that little is being done to level out Florida sentencing between blacks and whites. White offenders convicted of felony drug possession in Manatee County receive a sentence of 5 months on average. Black offenders routinely receive more than a year.

In Flagler County, blacks convicted of armed robbery found themselves on the end of sentences three times as long as whites. The Herald Tribune’s research and data mining is an impressive example of how data can be used to illustrate truths about the criminal justice we may not be comfortable with. Inevitably, the data affects our perception of the system and what needs to change.


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