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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.