Skip Navigation
Analysis

The Data that Can Make Prosecutors Engines of Criminal Justice Reform

Shifting the focus from convictions and sentences to fairness and community wellbeing is key to transforming the system.

  • Melba Pearson
November 23, 2020

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery are a few of the recent victims of the crim­inal justice system’s fail­ure to honor human life — espe­cially the lives of Black Amer­ic­ans and other people of color. Their deaths gener­ated a wide­spread demand for systemic change.

While much of the focus has been on police, people have become more acutely aware of the immense power that prosec­utors wield. As we explore how to improve the system in its entirety, prosec­utors must strive to be trans­par­ent about the work that their offices do every day. They need to be account­able to their communit­ies and ensure that every­one is being treated equally, with partic­u­lar atten­tion to whether sentences are fair or dispro­por­tion­ately impact­ing margin­al­ized people. A primary way to do that is by adopt­ing new ways to meas­ure success.

Prosec­utors are sworn in as minis­ters of justice and must lead by example. But indi­vidual prosec­utors, tasked with prosec­ut­ing the case before them, often oper­ate in a silo, and typic­ally do not have access to inform­a­tion about other cases — even cases within their own offices. To make matters worse, many prosec­utors have an aver­sion to numbers. When I was a prosec­utor in Miami, my co-work­ers and I had a running joke: we became lawyers because we could­n’t do math.

Lawyers might not be into numbers, but we always want evid­ence. And when collec­ted and analyzed prop­erly, data provides the type of evid­ence that prosec­utors can use to effect import­ant changes of prac­tice.

In most fields, there are clear metrics of success. Did you land a large client? How quickly do patients recover? What is the number of products sold this month?

By contrast, in prosec­u­tion, the metrics of success often end up reflect­ing the number of convic­tions, sentence length, or even crime rates. However, these factors do not reflect a community’s health and well­being. They do not tell us, for example, about community trust, support for surviv­ors, or if outcomes are fair across racial and ethnic groups. 

In trying to redefine what success in prosec­u­tion looks like in the 21st century, data is key. Prosec­utors should real­ize that data can be your friend — and the best part is that we have already done the math for you.

In 2017, research­ers from Flor­ida Inter­na­tional Univer­sity and Loyola Univer­sity of Chicago began work on what became the Prosec­utorial Perform­ance Indic­at­ors, or PPIs. The project was funded by the John D. and Cath­er­ine T. MacAr­thur Found­a­tion as part of its Safety and Justice Chal­lenge.

The result, which was launched in Octo­ber of this year, is a dash­board of 55 indic­at­ors — each assess­ing prosec­utorial progress on a monthly or quarterly basis toward achiev­ing the three broad goals of Capa­city and Effi­ciency, Community Safety and Well­being, and Fair­ness and Justice. 

The Capa­city and Effi­ciency goal is meas­ured by a series of indic­at­ors includ­ing whether prosec­utorial offices are reserving incar­cer­a­tion for seri­ous offend­ers, prior­it­iz­ing cases with greatest public safety returns, oper­at­ing effi­ciently to minim­ize the amount of time people are incar­cer­ated pretrial, and more. The Community Safety and Well­being goal is meas­ured by prosec­utorial offices’ victim support outreach, respons­ive­ness to public record requests, engage­ment with econom­ic­ally diverse communit­ies, and 16 other factors. Finally, Fair­ness and Justice can be meas­ured by up to 19 indic­at­ors — offices may collect data detail­ing racial and ethnic differ­ences in pretrial deten­tion, diver­sion, case dismissal, char­ging, and incar­cer­a­tion prac­tices, as well as data on whether low-income defend­ants are dispro­por­tion­ately punished.

The project launched in 2018 within prosec­utors’ offices in four cities: Chicago, Jack­son­ville, Milwau­kee, and Tampa. Char­le­ston and Phil­adelphia joined the project this year with plans to expand research­er­–­pro­sec­utor part­ner­ships in new juris­dic­tions. Chicago and Milwau­kee have already produced public facing dash­boards based on their PPI results, and Jack­son­ville and Tampa will release theirs by the end of 2020 — an unpre­ced­en­ted move towards prosec­utorial data trans­par­ency in Flor­ida. 

We envi­sion that the tool will be a resource for communit­ies, advocacy groups, research­ers, and report­ers to become informed about prosec­utorial decision-making as well as case outcomes in their juris­dic­tions. In addi­tion to this trans­par­ency goal, the PPIs are import­ant office manage­ment and perform­ance meas­ure­ment tools. Our long-term goal is not only to have exec­ut­ive prosec­utors but also mid-level managers examin­ing monthly dash­boards to under­stand trends, identify red flags, and imple­ment solu­tions.

When dispar­it­ies in senten­cing or case outcomes come to light in a partic­u­lar office, for example, it is crit­ical that such devel­op­ments are caught early and respon­ded to swiftly before becom­ing an even greater prob­lem. In all four of the current PPI sites, the PPI tool has iden­ti­fied racial dispar­it­ies in diver­sion prac­tices — mean­ing that racial and ethnic minor­it­ies are less likely to be enrolled in diver­sion at the outset of cases. Having iden­ti­fied this prob­lem, the offices are trying to identify the root causes of the dispar­ity — whether it could be prosec­utorial discre­tion, exclu­sion­ary guidelines to join diver­sion programs, the finan­cial cost for defend­ants to enter such programs, or a combin­a­tion of other factors.

Every jour­ney starts with a single step. Trans­form­a­tional change must start some­where, and it will always be a process. If we are seri­ous about trans­form­ing the crim­inal justice system as we emerge from Covid-19, using old habits and metrics of success aren’t going to cut it. Real-time data can help identify prob­lems early and encour­age respons­ive solu­tions, so we can imple­ment prosec­utorial prac­tices that make a differ­ence in the long run. Justice demands noth­ing less.

Melba Pear­son is director of policy and programs of the Center for the Admin­is­tra­tion of Justice at Flor­ida Inter­na­tional Univer­sity. Previ­ously, she served as deputy director of the ACLU of Flor­ida and as a homicide prosec­utor in Miami. Pear­son is also a member of Law Enforce­ment Lead­ers to Reduce Crime & Incar­cer­a­tion, a project of the Bren­nan Center.