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Documentary Seeks to Put the 'Sexy' Into Crime Data

Panelists (from left) Transue, Roman, Bach and moderator Ashley Campbell (Photo by Julia Merrell Smith)

In the 13 years since it formed as a non-profit helping local police, courts and prosecutors to get better at capturing and reporting the data that can reveal systemic problems, Measures for Justice has grown to an impressive size: a staff of nearly 80, operations in more than 20 states, and a gusher of philanthropic support in the tens of millions of dollars.

But one bit of its unfinished business is to spark popular support for criminal justice reforms by making criminal justice data understandable and interesting to the general public. “Reforming the justice system takes really knowing how it works,” the group states in a recent publication. “Data is the key to this puzzle. But it’s not sexy.” 

To put the sexy into its work, at least a crime-policy nerd’s version of the term, Measures for Justice has embarked on a roadshow to demonstrate in human terms how better data can reveal gaps and opportunities in the system. 

That roadshow on Monday night went to Rochester, N.Y., Measures’ headquarters city but a relative latecomer to the group’s consulting work. In a public screening of eight short-form documentaries, followed by a question-and-answer session with two of the documentaries’ subjects, Measures’ founder and CEO, Amy Bach, told the audience that making the system transparent with data requires storytelling to animate the numbers.

“Here’s the thing about data,” Bach said. “It’s powerful. But it’s twice as powerful when you have data plus a story.”

Last year, the organization’s storytelling venture, “Let’s Be Clear,” made its debut at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Al., as a series of eight video vignettes and four written stories. All 12 stories feature players in the system — police, judges, lawyers, formerly incarcerated people, crime victims — from around the country whose experiences show why exposing previously hidden data on the workings of the system held public officials accountable and revealed potential solutions.

Since then, Measures has made the documentary and a companion “conversation guide” available for events around the country like the one in Rochester. The stories center on such topics as drug enforcement, addiction and recidivism, pretrial detention, race in drug sentencing, sexual violence behind bars, and mental health in law enforcement.

One of the speakers at the Rochester screening, Hillary Transue, told how her stint in juvenile detention for a harmless prank as a 15-year-old turned out to be part of a pattern in Luzerne County, Pa., of over-incarceration of youth who lacked legal representation. The discovery of that pattern ended up exposing a “kids for cash” corruption scandal that led to the convictions of two judges and the state Supreme Court  overturning hundreds of delinquency adjudications. 

Without good data, Transue said, individual horror stories could be written off as unrepresentative of a larger problem.

The other speaker, former Newark Police Chief Ivonne Roman, told how her frustration over low retention rates of women in the police academy led her to document a nationwide failing in policing and to her co-founding the 30X30 Initiative to address this recruiting and retention failure.

The panel discussed the difficulties in prying information out of defensive public agencies, cleaning up “messy” data sets to standardize them enough for comparisons of one county to another, and then using those comparisons to inspire reforms.

That last step, Bach said, is up to local advocates. Measures’ role is to surface the data, and provide the tools to analyze and publish them, through its national data portal comparing court performance and its platform called Commons, to help courts, prosecutors and police provide their data to the public.

Measures’ latest venture is the All In Network, to help community organizations learn how to seek transparency and accountability from their criminal justice agencies. 

All of this work, Bach said, must stay rooted in storytelling to resonate with the public. She reminded the audience that storytelling is Measures’ own origin story. 

“The whole organization was born out of a book of stories,” she said, referring to her 2010 book Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, about systemic failures in America’s courts. “We need to get back to our roots constantly to make sure that people can really feel the power of data.” 


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