A WELL-KNOWN management maxim warns, if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. By that reckoning, those trying to better the state’s criminal justice system are often flying blind.
How long, for example, does the average probationer in Massachusetts stay on probation? Or how many people last year had their probation revoked?
State Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan has no idea. While each probationer has their own physical case file, the Massachusetts Probation Department has no computer-based case management system that would let state officials or researchers track information on an aggregate basis.
“A lot of things we do, we do manually,” Dolan said.
It isn’t supposed to be that way.
Two landmark reports in Massachusetts in recent years – one on reducing recidivism and the other on identifying racial disparities – were stymied in what they could accomplish due to a lack of usable data from the state’s criminal justice system. A sweeping 2018 criminal justice reform law sought to address the problem by requiring state officials to create a comprehensive cross-tracking system, where every person entering the criminal justice system would be assigned a number, and their case documents, from arrest to sentencing and beyond, would be maintained in an online system. 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, two and a half years after the law was passed, there has been little evident progress.
No new information is available to researchers, and there is not even a timeline in place for building the system. Although a 2020 information technology bond bill authorized $10 million for the project, there is still no official project proposal laying out actual costs. The slow pace is frustrating some, who suspect that government is simply uninterested in bringing more transparency to the system.
“They did nothing. They don’t want to do it,” said former state representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat who spearheaded the data portion of the criminal justice law. “They’re afraid to do it because it’s going to look terrible,” he said, referring to the light it might shed on racial disparities in the system.
State officials involved in the data effort say the project is enormously complex and progress is being made behind the scenes.
Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who sits on the board overseeing the project, said he thinks state government officials are taking the project seriously, but “it’s an issue of prioritization and capacity,” with state agencies not making it a top priority.
The issue of insufficient data was flagged prominently during a year-long review conducted by the national Council of State Governments, with strong backing from all segments of state government, on how to reduce recidivism. The group reviewed 13 million records provided by myriad criminal justice agencies, but one of the major findings in its February 2017 report was that the lack of standardized data collection and reporting leaves the state with an “incomplete understanding” of trends and outcomes in the system. Problems ranged from different police departments using different methods to report arrest data to a complete lack of electronic files on pretrial detainees.
A major study on racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal justice system, conducted by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Court and released in September 2020, similarly identified major data limitations. It found that police departments provided printed arrest reports, which could not easily be aggregated. Every district attorney had a different system for tracking cases. Cases that moved from District Court to Superior Court were not linked. Race and ethnicity was recorded differently at different agencies, and the information was often missing. Pretrial events and non-jail sentencing data were not consistently recorded electronically.
Brook Hopkins, former director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard, said in order to understand racial disparities in the system, it is important to track what happens before someone lands in jail – but that was often not possible. “There are a number of different agencies that collect data that would be relevant to that analysis, but they all use different definitions, they have different levels of accuracy and consistency and completeness in their data,” Hopkins said. “In many cases, it’s very difficult to link up large groups of aggregate data from one agency and see how that interacts with data about the same people from a different agency.”
The 2018 criminal justice reform law requires state government to create standards for data collection and use that to build the cross-tracking system. The legislation lists specific data that must be collected, such as offense type, race, gender, time spent in jail, participation in programs, and if a person reoffends.
The responsibility for overseeing the projects rests with a 16-member Justice Reinvestment Policy Oversight Board, led by Curtis Wood, who heads the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security.
The group has been meeting four times a year. But an annual report provided to the Legislature in June 2020 focused more on the challenges of creating the system than any progress in doing so. The legislative report indicated that so far, the group has been focused on figuring out how to standardize data collection so it can be integrated between agencies. The report detailed the results of surveys received from 25 criminal justice agencies, which found, unsurprisingly, that there is no consistency or standardization among how the agencies are collecting or tracking data.
The legislative report also includes a litany of what has not been accomplished, despite the law’s requirements. It writes that no new data has been made publicly available through an online application, though some agencies have posted some reports online. Recidivism data has not been collected. There continue to be no official standards for collecting race, ethnicity, and gender data.
Wood declined to comment, and his office said the next formal update will be provided in the next annual report, due in June 2021.
The board, in its report, asked the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to report on its progress toward complying with the 2018 law, and the agency’s response was that it convened a working group, which developed a draft of data collection regulations.
Asked for an update, Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said the agency is still working on those regulations. “EOPSS continues to make progress on the unprecedented creation and development of an entirely new unified data collection and reporting framework while working with stakeholders to identify the needs of local, county, and state agencies that capture, receive, and track data by many different mechanisms,” Wark said.
It is only now that state officials are even starting to talk about the next stage of the project – establishing a system through which data can be shared once there are standards for collecting it. State officials say once the data standards and regulations are finalized, the state offices of technology services and public safety will design and launch the data collection and cross tracking system.
Hopkins, who sits on the Justice Reinvestment Policy Oversight Board, said there is progress being made on data regulations, and board members have been meeting with vendors regarding the database project. “The timeline is uncertain and it won’t be fast enough, but I do think people are working diligently” across state agencies, she said.
The Trial Court, likely to be the biggest data contributor, has its own online MassCourts system in place, and Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said in a statement that the court “is working to address data quality and completeness.”
Dolan, at the Probation Department, said his agency plans to hire a consultant in the next couple of weeks to analyze the department’s needs and select a vendor to develop an online case management system. Dolan said the goal is to develop a system that will track every contact with a probationer and allow the agency to aggregate data and easily share it with other agencies. That will relieve probation officers of having to do simple functions like auditing the number of contacts made with an individual, and it will let the department do things like analyze the effectiveness of programs by tracking the outcomes of individuals who take part in them.
Dolan was unable to provide a time frame for how long the probation system will take to develop.
Dolan said having a comprehensive online tracking system “makes all kinds of sense,” and he is happy the state is moving in that direction, but it is complicated to develop “because you’ve got a landscape here of a variety of information systems and sophistication.” If an agency has tracked data one way for 20 years, Dolan said, “You can’t flip that on a dime and say guess what, beginning tomorrow we’re going to expect a different format.”