This week, Measures for Justice (MFJ) released their new data portal for the public. According to MFJ, the idea behind the portal "allows users to review and compare performance data within and across states, and to break them down by race/ethnicity; sex; indigent status; age; offense type; offense severity; and attorney type." They go on to say that "[t]he Data Portal comprises data that has been passed through 32 performance measures developed by some of the country’s most renowned criminologists and scholars. The measures address three primary objectives of criminal justice systems: Public Safety; Fair Process; Fiscal Responsibility."
Anyone who has done multi-jurisdictional criminal justice research will tell you a project like this is desperately needed. Further, this isn't a project from a dilettante that recently became acquainted with the mess that is American criminal justice. Amy Bach, the executive director of MFJ, is an expert on the criminal justice system and has been fighting this battle for criminal justice reform for many years. For these reasons, this project should be taken seriously.
Launching with six jurisdictions, the staff at MFJ are doing difficult work that the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) should have been doing years ago. What's most impressive is that they're doing this work with just 22 staff in Upstate New York. Further, it's not just a chance to see comparisons through their clean user interface; they made it easy to export any of the raw datasets their staff meticulously poured over.
This being said, a project of this nature and with this massive scope raises some questions:
- Sustainability: This project is massive and to keep it going will take a lot of money and effort. As of late, MFJ has been infused with a lot of money, especially from the tech sector; but, what comes of these efforts when they are no longer novel or become banal? Even worse, where does the data go if MFJ has to close? I'd assume someone would step in, but does that contingency exist? For the sake of the effort being made, I hope an off-boarding procedure has been considered.
These challenges were faced by the Sunlight Foundation when they were undertaking their criminal justice data project a number of years ago. Ultimately, they had to off-board the project and never reached their goal of collecting all the criminal justice data from all 50 states plus D.C. and the Feds.
- Upkeep: The work done by MFJ to get this far has taken six years and, from what I understand, was painstaking. While they plan to add 14 more states in the next three years, what happens to the datasets they've already built? Will we see expansions of these datasets as more data becomes available over time? To do so requires continuous effort and upkeep that isn't necessarily automate-able (the process of going the the jurisdiction in some cases was a needed step). I'm curious to know the plan for this type of perpetual upkeep.
- Tracking Impact: This is never easy. Ever. While there will be anecdotal successes of district attorneys or judges that see the data and make change, how can we as the criminal justice community track the impact of this work? I hope to see the innovation and energy put into this project extend to creative ways to track its impact. Page view and download stats will be insufficient; as well success stories from various jurisdictions. I'd be happy to brainstorm on this front. It's a challenge worth tackling.
Beyond these initial concerns, I think MFJ is well positioned to be a normative force in criminal justice stats around the country. While their work is focused on collecting and aggregating this data, I think it would be a missed opportunity if they don't leverage their relationships at the county level to help improve data collection capacity and provide a floor for standardization. My dream is for a government agency or company to create something similar to what Google's General Transit Feed Specification did for transit data. Without a doubt the criminal justice system is more challenging than transit; however, MFJ seems well suited through their relationships to bring this message and support. Perhaps they build off of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) and the Global Justice XML data transit standards. I'm not sure. However, it would be great to see MFJ, or a coalition led by MFJ, flex this muscle.
Measures for justice made a great data portal with county-level criminal justice statistics. It's a great and needed tool. There will likely be challenges around sustainability, upkeep, and measuring impact. With their impressive national network of local stakeholders, perhaps, MFJ can help standardize data capture in the criminal justice system. Go MFJ!