You can’t change what you can’t see.
That’s the motto of Measures for Justice, a nonprofit that just launched an online data portal to address unanswered questions about the American criminal justice system. Though the prison system is highly critiqued by activists, we know very little about what life looks like for the more than 2 million prisoners currently held in county prisons around the U.S.
Measures for Justice’s new platform is the first tool of its kind, working to uncover data in all 50 states currently unavailable to the public and present it in an easy-to-understand format.
“We’re giving people data they’ve never had access to before.”
Through public data collected from courts, probation departments, and public defenders, the portal is exposing the numbers and facts behind a covert criminal justice system often criticized for its lack of transparency.
Launched on Tuesday, the tool already has the backing of Google and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In February, Google.org allocated a $1.5 million grant to Measures for Justice, while earlier this week, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a sizable donation of $6.5 million to fund the portal’s data collection efforts in California.
Working with a team of 22 people, the nonprofit will analyze data around 32 core questions, assembling the numbers in a simple way that will be available to the public for free. The questions cover topics like how often people plead guilty without a lawyer, how much of state jail capacity is currently filled, and how many people are in jail because they failed to pay bail of less than $500.
Users can break down this data even further through refining topics like race, income, and crime level. The eventual goal is to collect and analyze numbers from the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S.
“We’re giving people data they’ve never had access to before,” Amy Bach, founder and executive director of Measures for Justice, told The Marshall Project. “We’re telling them stories about their communities and their counties that they’ve never heard before.”
But pulling together data sprawled across various databases, Excel spreadsheets, and paper records is incredibly time-consuming. In fact, the tool currently only allows users to search and compare criminal justice data from six states — Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida.
It’s taken the nonprofit about six years to collect that data, while simultaneously refining its collection process and building the online portal.
Some counties in these six states already had digital databases to give to Measures for Justice, but the majority didn’t. To collect data, researchers often had to physically travel from county to county, requesting individual public records from local agencies.
Another obstacle is that not all states collect data around the 32 questions Measures for Justice wants to evaluate. North Carolina, for instance, only has enough data to answer six of the 32 core questions. But the creators of the project hope states will start engaging more with the nonprofit’s goal, rather than withdraw from the effort toward transparency.
“Data breeds data,” Fiona Maazel, a spokesperson for Measures for Justice, told The Marshall Project. “Once county officials see how better numbers can lead to better outcomes, they’ll say, ‘We want to be a part of it. Let’s improve our data collection practices.'”
At least, that’s the type of reaction the nonprofit hopes for.
With the help of funding from tech heavyweights like Google and Zuckerberg, Measures for Justice estimates it will be able to collect data throughout 15 more states by 2020, while continuing to update statistics from the first six states every two years.