Moriarty has an opportunity to put data at the center of her community safety efforts

February 13, 2023 8:00 am

The FBI recently established the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which requires states to provide more detailed and nuanced information about their local communities. This will make national trends easier to analyze

Mary Moriarty’s election as Hennepin County Attorney is a chance to reinvigorate criminal justice reform in our largest county after decades of paralysis — and not just because of her background as a defense attorney. She will arrive in office at a key moment in the history of criminal justice reform because of the remarkable number of people using data in new and interesting ways to make communities safer.

Many discussions around the need for criminal justice reform emerge from data, revealing, for instance, a drastic increase in U.S. prison populations that began in the 1970s. The data places this issue beyond debate with a single graph.

The stark data has supported bipartisan reform efforts to lower the prison population.

Journalists have found powerful ways to use this growing appreciation of data. About ten years ago, the Washington Post began collecting data around police-involved shootings, which has grown into the most rigorous and comprehensive dataset of police shootings in the country, revealing the FBI’s count was capturing less than half of the true total. The Washington Post data also reveals disproportionate treatment of people of color. While the effects of racism are hotly debated, increasingly dynamic investigations of criminal justice data from a variety of sources reveals further correlations and insights about the relationships between race and policing.

Criminologists have always used data in their work, but there are genuine reasons to be excited about the emerging use of data in criminal justice reform right now. Nonprofit organizations, government agencies, scholars and practitioners are discovering how to support peace and safety in communities of all kinds.

Nonprofit organizations like Measures for Justice and the Council on State Governments identified a lack of consistent and reliable data emerging from the criminal justice system. They point out that the country’s criminal justice system comprises tens of thousands of different bureaucracies, and they all choose to gather, maintain, share or hide data on their own terms. Measures for Justice has begun reconciling what data they can find, while the Council on State Governments is encouraging the use of reliable and consistent standards across jurisdictions.

At the national level, the FBI has sometimes been the only source of national crime data. Critics say the data too often fails to capture the detail necessary to understand what is happening on the ground. Also, the vastly different data practices between jurisdictions can lead to misunderstanding when their data is reduced or summarized at the national level. To address these types of concerns, the FBI recently established the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which requires states to provide more detailed and nuanced information about their local communities. This will make national trends easier to analyze and create incentives for state and local practitioners to synchronize their data collection practices with national requirements. Minnesota is already one of the leaders among the 50 states in its adherence to these new data submission standards.

These trends are taking hold at the county level as well. The Office of the Suffolk County (Mass.) Attorney partnered with a team of researchers to analyze their prosecution decisions. After then-Suffolk County Attorney Rachel Collins assumed leadership of the office, prosecutors dismissed low-level offenses more often. The county then shared its prosecution data with researchers, who found that dismissing low-level, nonviolent charges correlated with a decrease in the number of people committing more crimes. In other words, the data showed keeping people out of the criminal justice system had long-term benefits. 

We do need to keep in mind that data is not a panacea. Asking the wrong questions can lead to gathering data that is biased, irrelevant or misleading. Gathering data effectively sometimes requires fundamental changes in process and technology infrastructure. Many people in the midst of such reforms can attest that you not only need to gather the data, but you need to develop a data culture within an organization in order for people to use it effectively. Developing a data culture in Hennepin County could be transformative.

Considering Moriarty’s frequent claims that she wishes to make the prosecutor’s office more transparent, this could be an opportunity to show leadership on using data to create clarity and unity around criminal justice issues. This requires engaging the community — in collaboration with nonprofits, researchers and activists — in determining what data is needed and how we can draw insights from it. This is a foundation on which we can build a more unified vision for a safer community.

But a more data-centric approach to community safety should go beyond Hennepin County. Minnesota has long prided itself on innovative governance strategies. The new DFL trifecta should use this opportunity to engage communities in a learning process around data, generate new insights from it, and bring more clarity and direction to debates around crime and safety.

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Eddie Glenn
Eddie Glenn

Eddie Glenn is a software engineer and law school graduate working at the intersection of law and technology.