New Tool Provides Insight on Local Justice Systems

May 24, 2017 by

Measures for Justice is a labor of love from criminal justice researcher and author Amy Bach. During the course of researching her book, Bach came across a woman in Mississippi whose violent domestic assault case was never investigated, and her ex-boyfriend never charged.

Bach’s discovery led her to uncover a troubling pattern. Quitman County officials, where the case was reported, hadn’t prosecuted a domestic violence case in 21 years. In fact, the county had almost no data available about its court system and the intricacies of it. Shockingly, the problem was so sloppy the local prosecutor wasn’t even aware of the case uncovered in Bach’s research.

Doing further research, Bach discovered this problem wasn’t confined to Quitman County, but was, in fact, a widespread issue across the nation. In response, Bach created Measures for Justice to help combat this institutional problem shared by governmental bureaucracies.

Measures for Justice is a comparative database of over 300 county court systems in a handful of states. The database uses data-driven performance measures to compare criminal justice systems from arrest to post-conviction. Ultimately the results boil down to three primary areas: fiscal responsibility, equity in the process, and overall public safety.

Through funding from the Department of Justice, MFJ used its expertise to launch a pilot program in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin which eventually expanded to cover the entire state. It was so successful, and illuminating, that they received more grant funding to expand the project to other states. They now cover Washington, Wisconsin, Utah, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

After previous grants from the DOJ, the MacArthur Foundation, and Laura and John Arnold Foundation, MFJ received support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to expand the program to 20 states.

While it’s hard to find and obtain specific data of local criminal justice systems, MFJ not only provides that but allows for a comparative overview of them.

One of the measurements for the program is how often non-custodial promises to appear are issued over custodial arrests. Simply put, this is the percentage of nonviolent misdemeanors for which the police issued a citation, or ticket, rather than arrest.

MFJ also measures the number of cases referred to prosecutors for law enforcement or a complainant in which the prosecutor declined to prosecute. Another is the percentage of misdemeanor referrals in which resisting arrest was the only charge, as well as cases where resisting arrest was the only charge declined for prosecution.

Additionally, MFJ looks into the time between initial arrest and first appearance, the number of pretrial diversions of misdemeanors, bail reductions, and guilty pleas without attorneys in misdemeanor cases.

These are just a few of the measurements, MFJ has 32 core measures, 21 companion measures, and 47 contextual measures which review a variety of factors such as race, location, citizenship, education levels, and sex.

The genius of this project is it reinvigorates the sometimes antiquated criminal justice system by combining it with current technology and allowing for increased transparency and easy identification for specific reforms.

The purpose of the data-driven project is to find out two things: who we prosecute and why.

Building up to its launch this week, MFJ has worked with prosecutors, defense attorneys and public defenders, courts, and probation departments to compile the information. Without the tools to identifying problems, they will remain unaddressed, negatively affecting the lives of millions of Americans.

The group’s motto is, “you can’t change what you can’t see,” MJF is doing a much-needed job in bringing each aspect of the criminal justice system into the cleansing daylight.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.