Connecting state and local government leaders
The Justice Counts initiative is developing a cloud-based portal to address the long-standing lack of standardized, accessible criminal justice metrics.
An online portal for nationwide criminal justice data aims to break down data silos, foster better informed decisions for government leaders and reduce the burden on staff collecting and publicizing the data.
Justice Counts, an initiative led by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, is developing a cloud-based database to address the long-standing challenge of collecting standardized, comprehensive criminal justice data across jails, prisons, law enforcement departments, courts and prosecution and defense offices.
With the Justice Counts digital infrastructure, state and local agencies can easily upload, store and publish data to the platform, which was co-developed by Recidiviz, a nonprofit dedicated to creating data tools for criminal justice departments.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are approximately 18,000 local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Finding and assessing data from each of those agencies would be a time-consuming process, especially since data definition and collection practices vary from agency to agency, said Katie Mosehauer, a program director at the Justice Center who oversees the project.
To help standardize the data and facilitate analysis for police agencies, the digital infrastructure stores quantitative data on arrests, calls for service, funding and expenses, reported crimes and more, according to the Justice Counts Technical Implementation Guide for law enforcement. These metrics, categorized as Tier 1, keep the amount of data to be uploaded manageable but still useful for agencies, Mosehauer said. When data sharing programs require too many metrics, the process can “overwhelm” agencies, deterring them from participating and limiting the project’s usefulness, she said.
Tier 1 data is likely already assembled by law enforcement agencies, eliminating the burden of additional collection efforts, according to the program’s website. Also, Tier 1 indicators may be more “mission critical” for government and agency leaders who make decisions affecting the criminal justice system, Mosehauer said.
“There’s a lot of risk in the way folks are making decisions right now,“ Mosehauer said. “Just because data isn’t out there doesn’t mean that no one’s making decisions that would be influenced by that data,” she said. For instance, legislators may request data that could influence a bill’s passage, but law enforcement may not have the time or data structure to respond promptly. The Justice Counts tool would enable lawmakers to pull data themselves “so the conversations you have on [the] legislative floor are much more informed,” she said.
Also, the tool gives agencies another way to assess their policies and programs. “There are some agencies that have not been able to provide salary increases in years, and that’s one of the reasons they’re having problems staffing up,” Mosehauer said. If, for example, police chiefs could easily show that their department spends less on salaries than other comparable jurisdictions, they would be better able to advocate for pay changes, she said.
When agencies upload information they can choose which data and metrics they want to share and customize the definitions. Justice Counts provides standard data definitions but recognizes, for example, what one agency identifies as a jail admission may differ from how other agencies define it. Agencies can essentially upload the data they have rather than “conform to a specific definition,” she said. “That’s a big challenge for a lot of agencies.”
Agencies may enter data manually or through an automated data transfer, which is key to the tool’s long-term sustainability, Mosehauer said. Once published, the data will populate public-facing dashboards to give officials “three different views that achieve different things,” she said.
At the agency level, crime data, for example, helps local leaders understand the impact on communities directly. A state-level dashboard may reveal sector trends, and nationwide data representations enable cross-system analyses and trend comparisons, Mosehauer said. The dashboards are not live yet, but Justice Counts hopes to host the dashboards on its site as well as on state’ government sites.
Justice Counts is currently onboarding six “founding” states and six implementation grantee states to the program before the tool is ready to expand nationwide, Mosehauer said. There is an opportunity for four more states to join the program at this time, and those interested are encouraged to apply. No data sharing agreements are required to join the program, she added.
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