SUFFOLK COUNTY District Attorney Rachael Rollins slammed the Baker administration for failing to update the state’s criminal justice information system to allow information to be more easily shared between agencies.
“I think it’s just excuses,” Rollins said when asked why the update – mandated by a 2018 law – has not yet been completed. She was testifying Monday before the Legislature’s Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion. “I encourage you to call them before you, and ask them why.”
According to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, the public safety agency is in the process of drafting regulations that would govern the data collection. The agency is planning, once that is complete, to move on to the next stage of the project, which involves creating a system to gather, anonymize, and publish the data.
“As part of the unprecedented creation and development of a new data collection and reporting framework, EOPSS and EOTSS have contracted with an IT consulting firm to aid in developing options for the massive task of unifying myriad data reporting methods that have been in place for decades,” said Jake Wark, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, speaking on behalf of both agencies. “Because the cooperation and collaboration of hundreds of local, county, and state criminal justice agencies is key to achieving that goal, we will also be working with them to get their input on integrating the data they capture, receive, and track through many different mechanisms.”
As CommonWealth previously reported, the 2018 criminal justice reform law required the state to create a comprehensive cross-tracking system, where every person entering the criminal justice system would be assigned a number. Their case documents, from arrest to sentencing and beyond, would then be maintained in an online system under that number. That system would be designed to share information between every agency in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, judges, and jails, and to make some anonymized information available for research.
However, the state has been slow in implementing it. As of January, state officials said progress was being made behind the scenes – for example, in developing standards for data collection. But there was not yet any timeline for implementing the new system.
The major problem is that the state and local agencies that collect the data are generally operating using very old systems, which cannot analyze data and are incompatible with one another. Some even rely heavily on paper record-keeping.
At Monday’s committee hearing – which was called for lawmakers to hear from experts and advocates about racial justice issues – Rollins argued that the biggest problem in pinpointing and eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system is a lack of consistent data and a lack of electronic data sharing across agencies.
“Reliable, readily available data is how we evolve, it’s how we adapt, and how we ensure that we are smart on crime. You cannot fix what you cannot measure,” Rollins said.
“Racial inequalities are exacerbated and perpetuated by our lack of a coordinated effort to collect and share the data we need to identify racial, ethnic, gender, and other biases,” she said.
For example, Rollins implemented a controversial policy of dismissing or diverting a large number of low-level cases away from the court system. But she cannot track whether those people subsequently committed a violent crime. To do that, Rollins said, would require running a query on every person, one by one – taking thousands of hours that her staff does not have.
After the Supreme Judicial Court authorized the release of large numbers of detainees due to COVID-19, researchers seeking to determine the impact of the releases would run into a similar data shortfall, Rollins said. There is no way to track whether those people reoffended, because the data is not in a format that it can be analyzed, she said.
Rollins said the old data management system is costing time and money. Because a lot of records exist only in paper format, assistant district attorneys spend 9,000 to 18,000 hours a year transcribing information from paper documents onto paper case file jackets, and administrative staff spend 5,000 to 10,000 hours transcribing the data into a computer system. That results in human error, incomplete data, and lag times. “It inhibits the ability to identify public safety trends in real time,” Rollins said.
The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association controls the computer systems run by the district attorneys – and that organization has been working on obtaining legislative funding to update the systems. Rollins urged lawmakers to provide the funding, and to create some urgency around finally implementing the data reforms. “We need buy-in and we need you guys to exert the power you have to say we said something as the Legislature, now please do it,” Rollins said.
This story was updated to add a statement from the Offices of Public Safety and Technology Services.