Prosecutors turn to data, community to advance criminal justice reform

In Yolo County, California, data is taking center stage in the community conversation about race, equity, accountability, and criminal prosecution. 

Frustrated with the lack of data available to his office, District Attorney Jeff Reisig partnered with Measures for Justice and the Yolo County Multi-Cultural Community Council to publish the Yolo “Commons.” It is a first-in-the-nation community resource to access disaggregated data on criminal prosecution and processes. 

This data is changing the way prosecutors in Yolo County—home to over 200,000 people that live on the west side of the greater Sacramento metro area—are increasing transparency in their processes, identifying opportunities for improvement, and creating a data-informed framework for community engagement.

“The data belongs to the people. It’s the only way we can have truly informed conversations about criminal justice reform,” Reisig recently told the Sacramento Bee. The Commons, which sets policy goals and measures the performance of the DA’s office through each stage of the prosecution process, included the ability for users to explore racially disaggregated data for all of those key indicators. 

Working alongside Reisig, Tessa Smith, Chairperson of the Multi-Cultural Community of Yolo County, praised these effort noting that “any conversation about criminal justice between the powers that be and the community at large, is destined to be politically and emotionally charged. And yet, this discussion is one of the most important of our time. [Commons] acknowledges real policy and system change must be grounded in facts, that data fuels a truthful narrative, and lays bare the impact and miscarriage of justice in this moment—for better and for worse.”

A national partnership for local action

With that ability to root these discussions in facts, accurate and transparent data can play a critical role in reform far beyond Northern California. That was the impetus for Measures for Justice (MFJ), the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), and Tableau Foundation to partner in helping scale Commons nationally, making it easier for prosecutors to effectively use data as they pursue a more equitable criminal justice system. 

Measures for Justice is a national organization that was founded to make criminal justice data meaningful, actionable, and publicly available. By partnering with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys—the national leader in technical and training assistance—the partnership will have the reach and resources to bring these data-driven resources to  district attorney’s offices across the country. 

The partnership is targeting a pilot cohort of 15 district attorney offices for the program. To kick off the partnership, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Jackson County, Missouri; and Bernalillo County, New Mexico are committed to implementing the complete Commons suite of resources.

“Criminal justice leaders must take the responsibility for driving reforms that improve fairness and consistency in prosecutorial decision-making and justice system performance,” said Raúl Torrez, Bernalillo County District Attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “By collaborating with Measures for Justice we are advancing a national effort to build community trust in the justice system through transparency and accountability.”

Rooting reform in data

Using the Commons framework, participating prosecutor’s offices can make data transparency a key part of a reform agenda that advances public safety, ensures equitable treatment under the law, and increases accountability.

While working with Reisig’s office, the Measures for Justice team recognized the potential of dashboards that could be customized to community needs, but also the difficulty of scaling the Commons platform with its existing technical capabilities. For Tableau Foundation, this was a clear opportunity to bring together what Tableau does best—helping people see and understand data—with the expertise of MFJ and the APA.

“This is a great opportunity to empower those offices to provide data in a way that is transparent, helps build community trust, and creates a point for meaningful engagement,” said Neal Myrick, Global Head of Tableau Foundation, who also noted the fit with the Tableau Foundation’s $12 million, three year Racial Justice Data Initiative to build the data capacity of national, regional, and community-based organizations fighting anti-Black racism in the United States.  

In addition to working with participating district attorney offices to analyze and share data through new, Tableau-powered dashboards, the partnership will support the development of national metrics that all prosecutors can use to assess their performance. 

“This is a terrific opportunity for data to take its place among the most valuable resources available to both the prosecutor’s office and its community,” said David LaBahn, President and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. “But there’s been a lack of consensus around how prosecutors should measure their progress, which makes it impossible to replicate what’s working.”

A new era of public transparency

2020 was a turning point for public expectations around transparency, as the COVID-19 public health emergency showed everyone how critical that open, accessible data really is. But it should also come as no surprise to elected and administrative leaders that citizens are demanding equal transparency and clarity from other parts of government—from federal agencies to local administrators. As much of the country reconsiders the role of the criminal justice system in perpetuating long standing racial inequities, this expectation for public information is no different and will be expected.

“Prosecutors must have adequate data to assess their decision-making, and communities need that data to hold their prosecutor accountable. Commons is a win for everyone. It’s about finding a way to communicate with one another in pursuit of a shared goal: a better, more fair, and efficient criminal justice system,” said Amy Bach, CEO of Measures for Justice.

In Yolo County, the district attorney’s office is already being held up as an example of a new path forward. The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board endorsed the launch of Yolo Commons and encouraged other counties to follow suit proclaiming, “The opportunity to achieve meaningful change and deliver unbiased justice should be embraced by every district attorney."

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