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Data-Driven Justice

Criminal justice reform won’t happen unless we learn what’s going on inside the system.

Even for insiders, the grinding gears of the criminal justice system can be as mysterious as a secret machine. That is why the Campaign for Smart Justice in Utah has been demanding more data collection, transparency, and accountability since we launched our effort in 2018. This is a summary of the progress we have made so far. 

First, in mid-August we published an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune calling for greater openness in our criminal justice system. This article caught the eye of Rep. Marsha Judkins (R-Provo), a first-term lawmaker and math professor at Utah Valley University. After speaking with Campaign Coordinator Jason Groth about prosecutor transparency and potential legislation, Rep. Judkins testified on September 18 in front of the Utah Legislature’s Judiciary Interim Committee about a prosecutor transparency bill she is developing for the 2020 Legislative Session. Her testimony included many talking points pulled from our op-ed, as well as the National ACLU’s report about prosecutor transparency and model legislation. Her fellow lawmakers on the committee responded favorably to her presentation, noting that such legislation is necessary to help make evidence-based decisions. With Rep. Judkin’s leadership, we are optimistic that our advocacy for prosecutorial accountability and transparency will be grounded in state code by next year. Judkins testify photo

Second, our mission to collect and analyze data is extending to how people move between jails and courts. With a new initiative codenamed “The Habeas Project,” we are partnering with programmers and data analysts at the University of Utah to understand systemic issues around unlawful detentions in county jails. These detentions lead to unnecessary costs for taxpayers, wasted resources for law enforcement, and, most importantly, needless deprivations of people’s liberty. After our team crunches the data on thousands of jail and court interactions, we will develop advocacy, policy, and litigation strategies to end future unlawful detentions. We anticipate completing our initial data analysis by December 2019 and recommending new strategies in early 2020 to end unlawful detentions.

Third, we are seeing evidence that data can drive reform-based decisions in the courts as well as in policy. Case in point: During recent oral arguments at the Utah Supreme Court, several justices mentioned that decisions made by the Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) could be better understood by analyzing data points about the results. This suggests that the Court is open to data-driven arguments that could show more due process protections are needed for individuals at parole hearings. 

As the Campaign for Smart Justice in Utah concludes its second year, we will continue to engage with policy makers, prosecutors, courts, and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system to collect more data to guide better decisions for their agencies and our communities. We still have much work to do, but as we add more data and insights, the criminal justice machine will run smoother.

…from the Fall 2019 Liberty Reporter