What good is all of the criminal justice data put out by the Justice Department if no one uses it?

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Each year, the Justice Department churns out lots of data about criminal justice. Recently it launched an initiative to prod state and local governments to use the data more effectively to make policy and budget decisions. To find out how it works, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the acting deputy director for policy at the...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Each year, the Justice Department churns out lots of data about criminal justice. Recently it launched an initiative to prod state and local governments to use the data more effectively to make policy and budget decisions. To find out how it works, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the acting deputy director for policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Ruby Qazilbash.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Qazilbash, good to have you on.

Ruby Qazilbash: Thank you so much.

Tom Temin: Let’s begin at the beginning. There’s a lot of bureaus at the Justice Department and just those that are uninitiated, help sort us out. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, where does that fit into the whole beehive of the Justice Department?

Ruby Qazilbash: I like to say that the Bureau of Justice Assistance or BJA is on that branch of the Department of Justice tree that reaches out to states and localities and tribes and our mission is to support and strengthen criminal justice systems within states and localities and tribes. The branch of our tree is named the Office of Justice Programs and on that branch, along with the Bureau of Justice Assistance are the statistical arm of the department, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the research arm, the National Institute of Justice, and others, too, that focus on victims issues as well as juvenile justice issues. Our primary focus is on the adult criminal justice system.

Tom Temin: Right. And the criminal justice system itself, then, comprises both the police and law enforcement end as well as courts and sentencing and that whole process end, correct?

Ruby Qazilbash: You got it.

Tom Temin: All right, the initiative that you have going, give us a sense of the type of data, first of all, it’s even available to states and localities and tribes that you generate, and how does it get generated?

Ruby Qazilbash: Well, there are data gaps for sure. While every state is different, though, we consistently find that agencies collect data that would be useful for policymakers and the public, but they don’t necessarily release those data, or they release them infrequently. Or they release them in ways that don’t lend themselves to drive policymaking in a data driven way. And the Justice Count State Data Scan, something that we did across all 50 states and looking at corrections data, for instance, to see what was out there clearly illustrates a trend. So for example, 38 states report their prison populations at least monthly, but less than half of states report their post release supervision population at the same rate. So while state participation is critical to the success of initiatives like Justice Counts, we think the federal government is uniquely situated to really catalyze the kind of coordinated substantial effort that’s necessary to change the face of criminal justice data.

So in Justice Counts, you have the federal government that’s providing the infrastructure, the instruction, and some in-state support to make these metrics real, potentially, for every criminal justice agency that you just talked about. So whether that is law enforcement, or prosecutors or defense, jails, the court system, prisons, community supervision, and we think that the federal government has a key role here in helping state and local agencies on these issues related to data. And Justice Counts is an effort to do just that. So again, most agencies already collect lots of data and have systems and policies and protocols for maintaining it and analyzing it, the resources that Justice Counts will provide, which will be the metrics, a technology platform, and technical assistance, and more. What we’re hoping to do with that is to help states and localities do more with what they already collect. And then that’ll provide policymakers with some key and timely information to support data driven policymaking within the criminal justice arena.

Tom Temin: What about those states and localities and tribes that don’t want to make it public necessarily, or figure they just gather it for their own purposes, but I guess politics comes into this at different levels in different locales in different ways?

Ruby Qazilbash: It sure does. And we are hoping just as any database, the fuller and more complete the data that are available for criminal justice policymakers to get more of a bird’s eye view and to fill in as many puzzle pieces as possible, is going to help them drive more data driven policymaking. This is an opt in approach. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is really in the business of making grant funding tools and resources available for states and localities and tribes. And that’s what Justice Counts is another example of. So we are bringing together a Bureau of Justice Assistance in partnership with an organization called the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and then 21 different partner organizations representing associations and different groups that represent all those different parts of the criminal justice system that I talked about, that are working together to achieve consensus to identify and then that baseline, what are those kind of duh metrics, so to speak, that we should already be collecting, and would be easy for us there. It’s a feasible metric for us to collect and also to share. And so we’ll be putting the the metrics out there and making those publicly available, announcing those later this spring, providing just a technology platform for those that want to opt in and share publicly with their peer organizations within their jurisdiction, to bubble up to take a look at the state or potentially to look and compare across jurisdictions. For instance, with a neighboring jurisdiction. So this is not a strong arm approach. This is a resource that we’re providing to states and localities and tribes to opt into, in hopes to make information more readily available to people that need it, but also the public.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ruby Qazilbash. She’s the acting deputy director for policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Justice Department. And do you see this potentially also, this data rolling up to fill in gaps that the federal government collects at the federal, say the FBI level has crime statistics that are national in scope? Could these combined data sets from the locales enhance what’s available nationally?

Ruby Qazilbash: We have a lot of rigorous data sets are ready, obviously, that the FBI collects through NIBRS, the National Incident Based Reporting System that are intended and built to be aggregated to speak about and be nationally representative. We also have the Bureau of Justice Statistics that engages in statistical collections for various statutory and other purposes. This is not meant to replace any of them, but like I said, is rather a resource for states and localities and tribes to be able to identify core sets of metrics that their policymakers can use to drive decisions. So there’s lots of things that they need to know whether that’s about populations as they move through the system, operational aspects, but we don’t have criminal justice agencies that are collecting the same metrics defined similarly, and aggregating them and looking at trends over the time, this gives them the opportunity to do that.

Tom Temin: And do you feel there might be localities out there that would like to get into the data business, knowing that it can result in better decision making and better government, but maybe just don’t have the experience or the technology to do so in the first place?

Ruby Qazilbash: I sure hope so. Yeah. What these metrics do is really get everyone, so policymakers, state and local criminal justice agency leaders, advocates on the same page about what to look at, what to share, what to consider when making policy decisions. And the metrics are also the basis of agency-focused tools, the public facing platform that will develop and other resources that will develop through Justice Counts. To create them, we really ask ourselves two questions. One, does the metric convey useful information to policymakers? And two, is it feasible? So for each metric of feasibility kind of rating, and we’re only including those that exceed that threshold. So is the metric really feasible for most agencies to be able to collect and share? Basically, do most agencies have the data necessary to produce it? And there’s a really wide range of potential metrics that could be helpful for research and analysis. But if agencies don’t have the data, or can’t get it, it won’t work. And we found that no two agencies are identical. So being flexible and kind of calibrating our approach towards feasibility was really important to us. And we also realize that we’ve got to walk before we can run. So we’ll be starting with a handful of metrics, tier one metrics, so to speak, and then gradually expanding down the road as agencies really become more accustomed to using the metrics and the associated data platform that we’ll be standing up.

Tom Temin: Now is there money involved here? That is a situation of a local government wants to get onto that technology platform wants to access the metrics? It’s at their expense? If there is an expense, is there grants available? How does it work from that standpoint?

Ruby Qazilbash: Right now, later this spring, we will be releasing that tier one or the handful of kind of indispensable metrics that we really hope every justice agency will be able to commit to, it will be possible for them to collect and share at least locally. We have technical assistance that will be available for anyone that wants to adopt the metrics and use the platform and how to use it. Later this year, we hope to release a solicitation that will make funding available to states to help with capacity building at the state level. And that can also drill down and assist local jurisdictions or agencies and local jurisdictions participate as well.

Tom Temin: And just to be clear, besides giving them the means to collect the data and store it in an organized way, there’s also information tools, whatever available to help localities use the data and create analysis on how they can better do budgeting or better change other policies throughout their criminal justice systems?

Ruby Qazilbash: We are still building out the full data platform. And in the future, having some analytical tools built in would be a great thing to include. But I can’t say right now that’s included in the full build out.

Tom Temin: All right. Is there a timeline to this? Or is there a deadline to it? Or is this going to be a kind of perpetual program as different state and local and tribal governments sign on?

Ruby Qazilbash: Yeah, well, we’ll be announcing the launching the tier one metrics later on this spring. Jurisdictions can look for a solicitation. Other federal agencies call them different things request for proposals or notice of funding availability. At the Department of Justice, we call them solicitations. So states can look for a solicitation that will be released later this funding season, this spring, for funding to support. But if agencies are interested in participating as soon as they’re released, technical assistance will be available to them to get support to do that.

Tom Temin: Ruby Qazilbash is the acting deputy director for policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Justice Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Ruby Qazilbash: Thank you.

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