Policymakers must solve for complex and dynamic questions facing state and local criminal justice systems, frequently without real-time actionable data to inform and direct the best solutions. Such important issues demand and deserve better data.

During a 2021 CSG National Conference session presented by the Interbranch Affairs Committee, attendees learned about a new national initiative that aims to make data accessible, timely and useful for policymakers and criminal justice stakeholders.

Called Justice Counts, the initiative is led by the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Assistance and the CSG Justice Center. Justice Counts cooperates with a broad coalition of national partners, state and local leaders, criminal justice practitioners, researchers and more.

“What’s the status quo today?” CSG Justice Center Director Megan Quattlebaum asked during the session. “It’s not great. Data are siloed and scattered. Multiple reports are compiled by multiple agencies and are rarely consolidated or even looked at outside of individual agencies. We might know what’s happening to a person at the point int time that they’re incarcerated, but there’s not a lot of data on what’s happening before and after that point.”

She described four phases of the Justice Counts initiative: gathering public data, developing core metrics, making reporting easy and providing technical assistance to the states as they scale up their use of data and tools.

“Having real time actionable data to inform decision making is not an impossible dream,” she said. “Other areas, like public health, use real-time data. They have a more holistic view than justice does. We’re not about data just for data’s sake, but we and our partners believe that data is a critical tool for making systems more fair, effective and efficient.”

Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, and Linda Freeman, executive director of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, discussed data issues during a following panel discussion.

“Data is what should drive criminal justice,” Ward said. “What does reality say? At end of day, both sides will drive narrative that doesn’t reflect the data. Data allows us on policy side to say, ‘Do I need new law to deal with this crime or that crime?’”

 Freeman pointed out the importance of having a system-wide unique identifier, as well as the challenge of getting consumers to use data once it’s available.

“It’s a collective action problem,” she said. “I have the mission to do it, but I have very little tools to make people do the things I need them to do. […] Funding alone can’t make things happen.”

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