Are the government’s commitments on criminal justice open data enough?

Jail cell door
(Photo credit: my_southborough/Flickr)

The growing importance of criminal justice data in the context of government transparency was highlighted last month when the White House released its Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) to the public. This third iteration of the NAP was the first to include a section on “Justice and Law Enforcement” since the inaugural release in 2011.

The section specifies two areas of focus in which the government has already been involved: access to justice and open police data. The latter, a response to the recommendations that came out of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, is spearheaded by the White House Police Data Initiative — a cooperative effort between police departments and key stakeholders, including the Sunlight Foundation, to improve community relations through better use of data and technology.

The inclusion of these efforts as a core component of the NAP is a promising directive, but unfortunately the commitments fail to address large swaths of the country’s criminal justice system. With no mention of the challenges we face in addressing incarceration, re-entry and statewide agency coordination, the plan leaves something to be desired. By delving into each of the aforementioned topics vis-à-vis our research into criminal justice data nationwide, we’ve uncovered some examples of how these issues could be tackled in the government’s next NAP.

The inner workings of the correctional system are still a mystery

What happens behind bars remains largely unreported on by correctional departments. Perhaps one of the most significant pieces of national legislation to ever affect the prison system, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 required data on incidents of sexual assault in prisons to be collected and disseminated accordingly. The incredibly tragic story of Kalief Browder’s death reignited the conversation over the ethics of solitary confinement and served as a harrowing reminder that there is still a lot of room for improvement in how correctional data is made available to the public, as both a tool for advocacy and performance evaluation.

In Colorado, data on inmates in solitary confinement is statutorily required. Information on the restricted housing population is disseminated and analyzed in a report that has been made available every year since 2012. The latest reveals an 85 percent decrease in the number of inmates in solitary confinement since the National Institute of Corrections reviewed the state’s Department of Corrections’ practices in 2011.

Solitary confinement population trends with timeline of key reform initiatives. (Graphic credit: Colorado Department of Corrections)

Meanwhile, the issue of private prisons stills looms large in the conversation surrounding mass incarceration. The for-profit industry is being investigated in depth by fellow open government champions MuckRock, whose project on the subject debunked the cost-saving myth that many proponents of private prisons propagate. Information collected in our inventory of criminal justice data corroborates that assertion, indicating that private contract beds are often only capable of caring for lower-risk inmates with less severe medical and mental health treatment needs. The Arizona Department of Corrections’ Biennial Comparison of Private versus Public Provision of Services reveals that these caveats skew cost analyses, matching private prisons with state-run facilities that harbor a more expensive, resource-intensive population.

Opening data on inmate populations and budgeting in the correctional system would go a long way in ensuring investigations into the efficiency and fairness of prisons can continue to guide policy decisions moving forward. A commitment to publicly sharing this type of information in a standardized way across jurisdictions would be a welcome addition to the next National Action Plan.

The process for citizen reentry is broken and uncoordinated

Last month’s Rebuilding Re-entry Hackathon, hosted by Mission: Launch, Inc., brought together individuals, NGOs and government agencies to solve problems citizens face when returning from prison. The event spawned a multitude of promising ideas, some of which were drafted into full-fledged action plans and wireframes. Altogether, it was both inspiring and demonstrative of the holes in the current reentry process. Information on resources available to returning citizens is too often muddled, decentralized or completely nonexistent to begin with; much of it remains disparate based on whether individuals are housed in state or federal facilities.

A national effort would be monumental in addressing this gap and helping citizens succeed after a stint in prison. Building an infrastructure that tracks every individual across the system with the goal of curbing recidivism through outcome analysis is a massive lift, but coordinating the availability of resources to those seeking them out is a relatively simple first step in making the transition easier for re-entering citizens. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s Resource Guide addresses this need for every county in the state — a proof of concept for compiling information on emergency shelters, health clinics, legal services and more. Unfortunately, the listings for each county exist only in nonmachine-readable PDF format, and most haven’t been updated since 2011.

The infrastructure for state-level data is lacking

There are many examples of excellent police data from departments around the country, but for the most part, they represent outliers in their respective states. Progressive practices should be addressed at the state level to ensure they will be implemented everywhere, either through a legislative mandate or an overarching state agency. Statistical Analysis Centers serve as the aggregators of Uniform Crime Report data for states; the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention is legally obligated to collect traffic stop data from police departments in Maryland. Entities can and should exist to establish best practices and standards throughout every police department in any given state — a goal the next National Action Plan would be remiss to exclude.