There’s more to criminal justice data than you think: Delve into it with Sunlight’s new inventory


At Sunlight, we’ve long been champions of the general idea that access to data makes things better. And we know that’s especially true in specific policy areas such as criminal justice. What we’ve learned over the last year (as we’ve started building an inventory of criminal justice data from all 50 states) is that while public access to information is the gold standard when trying to establish accountability and transparency, work still needs to be done. Instilling a culture of uniform data collection that takes advantage of technology and digital tools is a very important first step for much of law enforcement today.

Sunlight’s criminal justice inventory. So far we have data collected for 18 states and the federal government. Read more about this project.

Earlier this month, FBI Director James B. Comey gave an important and unexpectedly frank speech on his view of police practices and race relations. In his speech, he referenced some of the controversial scenes that much of America has reacted to in recent months, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the recent shooting deaths of two NYPD officers. The point of the speech was to expand the conversation about how to improve police relations within their communities and how to address racial biases, real or perceived, head on.

Comey’s most concrete call to action in the speech, titled “Hard Truths,” is that we must collect better data so we can better analyze what’s going on in our communities. As an example of what’s wrong with the state of the FBI’s data, Comey admitted that the voluntarily reported data the agency gets on officer-involved shootings is “incomplete and therefore, in the aggregate, unreliable.”

Another truth for people interested in criminal justice data is that there is what seems to be an endless amount of it. And one problem beyond much of the official data being unreliable, is that useful sources of data can be hard to find. With that in mind, we’ve started amassing heaps of information about criminal justice data in order to build an inventory which goes far beyond the FBI’s commonly referenced Uniform Crime Report, which regular citizens, advocates, journalists and practitioners in the field can take advantage of. You can see the work we’ve done so far, and even contribute to it, by visiting this page. Further, in the process of this work, we’ve stumbled across a few excellent examples of what good data can do for all of the parties mentioned above, and likely more.

For instance, the story told by journalists at the beginning of this year about the New York Police Department’s work slow-down was an interesting example of how crime and criminal justice data can inform the public and create accountability. In stories by a number of outlets, including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, reporters were able to access weekly police activity statistics and see that tickets had stopped being issued and arrests had stopped being made, indicating that an informal or unofficial strike had been organized.

In California, an emergency room doctor and gun violence prevention researcher named Garen Wintemute uses data provided to him by the state of California to study ways to prevent gun violence. Wintemute is able to take advantage of criminal history records and firearms purchase records to do his research, something that is largely prohibited on the federal level.

It’s important to highlight that the data Wintemute uses in his research is not available to the public, and by Sunlight’s standards is considered closed. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the reasons behind the closed status of a good number of data sets. Crime and criminal justice data regularly consists of personally identifiable information, or PII, and is protected due to privacy concerns.

In a previous Sunlight Foundation piece, National Policy Manager Emily Shaw explored systems set up within government to share data between agencies and with trusted researchers outside of government. Researchers who use government data containing private and sensitive individual information have to adhere to strict legal guidelines and are held liable when violating those guidelines. The interagency data sharing systems are also setup to ensure privacy is protected.

In Connecticut, after a family was murdered in a horrific scene by two men on parole, the idea that the murders could have been prevented if more information was available at the time of their parole board hearings caused state officials to spring to action and create a system that links many types of criminal history data for internal use. In another Sunlight Foundation post, Research Fellow Damian Ortellado explored the solution Connecticut came to in creating its newly linked system, which aims to empower law enforcement practitioners throughout the state to make good decisions and protect its citizens.

Further, public data has been used by private organizations and nonprofits to create analyses and interactive data visualizations that help to identify such things as racial disparities in incarceration and ways police can improve practices intended to keep neighborhoods safe. The Burns Institute, for example, created an excellent tool last year that allows people to see how many juveniles are detained in each state. The tool combines juvenile crime data with census data to help people understand the rate at which minority children find themselves in jail.

In an upcoming post, Sunlight will look at how data collected and made open by major police departments around the country have improved and in some cases drastically decreased stop and frisk practices.

Cost-saving measures, alternatives to incarceration and an increase in public safety are all reasons for creating better access to and knowledge of the criminal justice data that exists. If any of the data or the issues mentioned here interests you at all, please visit the Sunlight Foundation’s criminal justice inventory to see what might be out there.