President Obama has called for more data to “guide us forward” in making a criminal justice system that is fairer and smarter. Data, the president has suggested, is a vital crime-fighting and community-building tool.
One New York organization is breaking new ground in this arena. Equality Indicators, a project of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, will regularly publish data on different kinds of inequality in New York City. The purpose of Equality Indicators is to measure change, either toward or away from equality. To reach its findings, Equality Indicators uses data from the city, state and federal governments, and its own survey results, and those of other organizations.
The Project has ranked the level of inequality in New York City across six metrics—economy, education, health, housing, services, and justice. It uses a scaled score of 0 to 100 score for each, based on 16 sub-scores. These sub-scores reflect specific “indicators,” or measures of inequality—for example, the difference between black and white employment rates. Of the six broad metrics, Education and Services received the highest marks. Health received the lowest mark. Justice came in second-to-last.
The Justice category measures victimization and involvement with the justice system, among other factors. It’s scaled score of 38.1 means that on average, the groups compared in each of its sixteen indicators are highly unequal—on average, one group is 2.5 times better off than the other. So although some indicators showed substantial equality—high income areas had only slightly higher voter turnout than low income areas—many others showed shockingly high inequality—black New Yorkers are more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime, four-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for low-level crimes, and nine times more likely to be jailed than white New Yorkers.
This project builds upon a recent history of data-centered advocacy and policy. For example, a 2013 ACLU report on marijuana enforcement—indicating gross disparities in both well-to-do and low income communities, despite equal rates of use—has garnered much attention, most recently from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Prosecutors’ offices in Milwaukee and New York City have partnered with the VERA Institute of Justice to comprehensively evaluate racial disparities in their offices. And last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law mandating collection of data about police stops, including the race of the person stopped and whether it resulted in an arrest, citation, or neither.
Equality Indicators is a compelling model. It provides a wealth of data on an issue of great importance to New Yorkers—on the issue at the heart of the last mayoral election. And it does so in a uniquely accessible way. It is a step toward the efficient, comprehensive system of criminal justice data imagined by the president. Data is a powerful tool in setting policy. The kind of progress that Equality Indicators measures is exactly the kind of information policymakers need to be certain that they are on the right track toward the fairness that is essential in criminal justice.