Obama: Justice reform depends on better data

Obama: Justice reform depends on better data

As he prepares to leave office, President Barack Obama has written an article on the president’s role in criminal justice reform. Part of the president’s responsibility, the piece said, is promoting data-driven solutions.

In the article published by the Harvard Law Review, Obama pointed to the White House’s Data-Driven Justice Initiative and Police Data Initiative as examples of how his administration has worked to increase data gathering for criminal justice reform.

When the Data-Driven Justice Initiative to reduce unnecessary jail stays was announced in June 2016, there were 67 states, cities or counties that agreed to join the program. It identified people who could be better treated outside of jail, trained police and first responders to better treat mental health crises and encouraged the use of pretrial risk assessment tools.

There are 11 million people in county jails who spend an average of 23 days incarcerated; only 5 percent of those individuals are ultimately convicted and sentenced to time in prison. White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, who cited those statistics in a press call prior the article's publication, said such  data makes you “ask yourself whether you should be reforming bail systems. So many people end up in jail because they can’t make bail.”

Those risk assessment tools came under fire when media outlets and court officials looked into their effectiveness. Although the tools were designed to change the approach to pretrial incarceration that jailed low-risk offenders who were unable to pay bail, an investigation by ProPublica, found racial biases in the software that assigned higher risk scores to black defendants.

Training law enforcement officers and 911 dispatchers how to better respond to people with mental health problems also has helped reduce incarceration, according to Obama.  “Over the last five years, police in Miami-Dade County have responded to almost 50,000 calls for service for people suffering from mental health issues, but have made only 109 arrests and have directed more than 10,000 people to services or safely stabilized situations without arrest,” he wrote.

The Police Data Initiative, also cited in Obama’s article, was launched about a year before the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. It encourages law enforcement agencies to increase transparency by making their department data available in public databases. The program is voluntary and currently has 131 law enforcement agencies participating, with 175 published databases on such topics as use of force, officer-involved shootings and vehicle stops.

Because the program is voluntary, it doesn’t allow for nationwide analysis, but Jarrett said it was important to start out with a voluntary system to get buy-in from the policing community. “It is conceivable down the line that it might be mandatory,” she said. Meanwhile,  Obama wrote, the “Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice will continue this work along with private businesses and nongovernmental organizations.”

For nationwide data collection, Obama recommended  that the data source for the Uniform Crime Report should be switched from the “Summary Reporting System, which collects an aggregate monthly tally of crimes in just ten offense categories” to the National Incident-Based Reporting System. NIBRS, he said, “improves the quality of our crime data by providing much richer details, including the date, time, location, and circumstance of the crime as well as characteristics about the victim and offender and any relationship between them.”

Although the number of police departments that use NIBRS is low, he wrote, several law enforcement associations along with federal partners are working to move states and localities to this system by 2021.

“But at the end of the day, those entrusted with influence over the direction of the criminal justice system must also remember that reform is about more than the dollars we spend and the data we collect,” Obama concluded. “How we treat those who have made mistakes speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values ... ”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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