The Criminal Justice Black Box
55 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2016
Date Written: February 2016
“Big data” — the collection and statistical analysis of numerous digital data points — has transformed the commercial and policy realms, changing firms’ understanding of consumer behavior and improving problems ranging from traffic congestion to drug interactions. In the criminal justice field, police now use data from widely-dispersed monitoring equipment, crime databases, and statistical analysis to predict where and when crimes will occur, and police body cameras have the potential to both provide key evidence and reduce misconduct. But in many jurisdictions, digital access to basic criminal court records remains surprisingly limited, and, in contrast to the civil context, no lucrative market for the data (apart from that for background checks) exists to induce the private sector to step in to fill the gap. As a result, bulk criminal justice data is largely limited to survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Unlocking the “black box” by uniformly collecting and reporting basic, anonymized data from criminal cases — including, e.g., the charges, pretrial release decision, appointment of counsel, and case disposition — would have significant benefits. It would allow researchers, reformers, and government actors to both more effectively study the system as a whole and to more easily identify jurisdictions violating the Constitution by, for example, routinely denying counsel or pretrial release and imprisoning defendants for inability (rather than unwillingness) to pay a fine or fee. This Article documents this problem, explores its causes, and proposes a solution, arguing that the federal government should form a framework for the uniform collection of anonymized local, state, and federal criminal justice data. While participation in this uniform system is likely to be incremental, even partial data would improve our understanding of the system as a whole and aid efforts to enforce well established, but frequently violated, constitutional rights.
Keywords: bail, pretrial detention, debtors' prison, indigent defense, criminal justice statistics, big data, electronic data, criminal justice reform
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