There’s no question that the world is becoming increasingly reliant on data and the criminal justice system is no exception. The justice system in the United States has used various data types and forms of data collection for years. For example, police departments, states, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) rely on data to generate and report statistics regarding a wide range of crimes.
Data collection is a key component in big data analytics. Without accurate data collection methods, the integrity of any associated research cannot be maintained.
Below, let’s explore how data is collected and used in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Data and the Justice System
Criminal justice researchers rely on data collection methods for analysis. For example, surveys, interviews, focus groups, or experiments are all common data collection techniques that allow criminal justice professionals or experts to form policies or practices.
Once data is collected, it can be leveraged to improve the efficiency and quality of today’s modern justice system. Police departments benefit from data collection. Analyzing that data with automated technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), allows them to conclude patterns between data points.
Data analysts can also connect criminal justice data with data from other sources, such as:
- Work history
- Poverty rates
- Educational attainment
Businesses in several other industries are leveraging data analytics to improve their operations. How can collecting data benefit the justice system?
Improving the Justice System Using Data
Progress in the justice system cannot be made without tried and true data collection methods. When data is collected, it can be used for various purposes. Below are a handful of ways collecting data can make a difference in the justice system.
Because law enforcement agencies respond to thousands of requests and crimes, collecting data on their response efforts can improve outcomes. In other words, law enforcement personnel can review data and make optimal decisions about how to respond. Planning to respond to unique situations is crucial for an agency.
In her TED Talk, former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram described how smart statistics could be a key in fighting crime. Milgram focused her efforts on developing a mental health assessment tool to help cities, counties, and states discern people with mental illnesses and if they should enter the criminal justice system.
Crime data, if collected properly, can help law enforcement agencies determine any correlations that affect criminal activity. Additionally, agencies can use collected data to identify areas where, when and what types of crimes are most likely to occur.
Law enforcement agencies can input collected data into a shared database, allowing other states or counties to access it. Officers can establish connections between crime scenes, form criminal profiles and gain more details about crimes.
Other crime prevention systems can also greatly assist law enforcement agencies. For example, crime mapping software can leverage crime visualization data, which can help agencies establish connections between crimes in one area.
How Does the Justice System Currently Collect Data?
Unfortunately, it seems as though the justice system’s data infrastructure is antiquated. Data collection and availability in the system are subpar at best and lack overall transparency.
Measures for Justice, a nonprofit organization that gathers data from every county in the nation, released a report in 2021 called The Power and Problem of Criminal Justice Data: A Twenty-State Review.
The report contains some key findings. In most cases throughout the nation, certain data in the justice system is either not collected or isn’t available for research due to administrative protection or legal policy. Some advocates argue that it can limit policymakers’ ability to make informed, data-driven decisions about policy, which undermines trust in the overall justice system.
The report found that every state analyzed in the study lacked significant data that could’ve been used for key measurements. For example, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Indiana were the only states with reliable data on indigent defendants — in other words, defendants who lack the funds to hire a private attorney.
Overall, the justice system does value data collection. However, there are still challenges preventing the system from reaping all the benefits big data analytics offers.
Data Collection: Will it Play a Significant Role in the Future Justice System?
Based on research from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), some states have implemented legislation regarding data and how it can be leveraged to drive reform in the justice system.
However, it seems as though the justice system still has a ways to go when harnessing the power of big data. State lawmakers and the federal government should consider funding the modernization of the justice system’s data infrastructure, making data more accessible and transparent, and setting national standards for all parties involved.