The Stats Are In: The Criminal Justice System Needs More Data

You can never truly tell how well a system works if you don’t have the statistics to back it up. Unfortunately, one of the most important systems in the United States is severely lacking in usable data: the criminal justice system. We may know the “what” of crimes, but very little is known on the more important “why.”

At a time where people are demanding more transparency from companies and their government, the call is even stronger when it comes to the criminal justice system. With the slew of recent police brutality incidents, American citizens rightfully want a way for officers to be held more accountable, and that way is through public policy.

Public policy shapes the justice system, and the only way that can be done effectively is if reliable information is made available. In order for that to happen, more data needs to be accessible.

Where’s the Data?

The amount of unavailable information regarding law enforcement could be seen as almost criminal. Without this data, there’s no reliable way to monitor racial disparities and whether certain crimes and incarceration conditions are rising or falling. For instance, although we know the number of Americans who have a criminal record, there’s no reliable statistic on the races of those individuals.

Similarly, we have great numbers on the amount of inmates the U.S. has along with their demographics and crimes they committed. The information we don’t have is what exactly goes on inside of prisons and how often. How many people are in solitary confinement? What’s the number of non-sexual assaults that occur in prison?

The answers to these and many other questions on prison life are mostly unknown due to insufficient data. However, sometimes such data gaps are unforeseen until attention is called to them, such as with police killings.

When our country suffered multiple deaths of unarmed individuals by police officers, it was then that it was discovered that statistics on civilian fatalities caused by law enforcement was almost non-existent. The stats we have now don’t give us the whole picture on crime and seem to help very little in reducing incarceration rates. What we need is more data with accompanying context to make sense of it all.

Data-Collecting Systems

Thankfully, strides have been taken to address the data shortage in the criminal justice system. Both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics have implemented different programs to enable more effective data collection across law enforcement agencies.

The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) has been instated since the 1930s and collects information on the seven most common crimes. By accessing the UCR, criminal justice departments will have a better idea where to focus their efforts on and how to budget their funds more effectively. Crime trends are also more likely to be spotted and improvements made to the system as a whole.

A more detailed version of the UCR is the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

This system allows law enforcement officials to provide more detailed information on crimes, such as the behaviors of both the perpetrator and victim, the specifics of the crime, and the exact items that are stolen in robberies. The goal of the NIBRS is to provide useful data that researchers and legislators can derive statistics from to get a better view of crime as a whole.

Lastly, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) was created to fill the missing gaps of the UCR and the NIBRS. The NCVS is geared more towards the victim of crimes and the effects lawbreaking has on people. This survey is meant to find out how likely it is for someone to become a victim from a variety of crimes.

More Data Equals Better Results


Source: Wikimedia Commons

So far, the release and collecting of data from the criminal justice system has borne many positive results. For example, when the data for stop-and-frisk cases in New York was made available, the stats that were produced were shocking. Not only were 90 percent of people who were stopped and frisked innocent, they were also minorities.

This data prompted new policies which reduced stop-and-frisk cases by over 600,000 incidents. Another implement that has been made to increase data coverage is police body-worn cameras. While researchers get access to firsthand information, law enforcement personnel and citizens benefit from the policy change as well.

Police officers who wore cameras showed less aggressive behavior and were not as overly physical with potential suspects. Likewise, people also behaved better when interacting with an officer when they knew they were on camera.

As the criminal justice system becomes more transparent with the data they have, public relations with the police also increase. When people trust the men and women who are sworn to protect us, they are more willing to cooperate with officers and provide information.

There’s still a long road ahead in filling the data gap in the criminal justice system. There are many questions that still need to be answered and asked. Although learning what kind of crimes are being committed is important, it is equally important to discover why they are being committed to begin with.

The more information that is collected, the more we’ll be able to tell how effective our law officials are and if there are any trends in crime that should be looked into. The further we strive for a transparent criminal justice system, the clearer crime and incarceration rates will become.


Author: Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.