Ever since U.S. crime rates became a major public issue back in the 1960s, data on crime rates and on how the criminal justice system have been notably incomplete and dated. "Stale," "submerged" and "scattered' were terms repeatedly used on Wednesday in a seminar in a relatively new federally supported effort to remedy the situation -- one called Justice Counts.
Among the many problems with justice data, the FBI's crime statistics usually are published in the fall for the previous year, as are numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on how many inmates are in state prisons and local jails.
The lack of reliable, timely numbers often leaves policymaking bodies like state legislatures and city councils making decisions based in large part on anecdotes reported in the news media, like neighborhoods that report spates of violent crime and stories about released prisoners who were arrested for new crimes.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center is attempting to use a wide-ranging website to fill many of the gaps in data, at least on the state level, by displaying as much key information as it can in one place.
Logging on to the website on Wednesday, for example, a viewer would see that as of September, the prison population in Pennsylvania was 38,844, down seven percent from a year earlier.
In Illinois, the public could see on the site that the number of ex-prisoners who violated their conditions of release was up 113 percent last June compared with a year earlier.
In the past, there was no single place where anyone could see state-by-state data of this kind on a reasonably up-to-date basis.
It is true that the FBI eventually would publish in its Uniform Crime Report detailed crime figures from states and cities, but those numbers reflect a serious flaw: they include only crimes reported to local law enforcement to the FBI. A large number of offenses never are reported to local police.
In the case of prisoner numbers, one reason federal compilations are so late is that reporting by states and counties is all voluntary and often takes a long time to make its way to Washington, D.C.
The latest sign of improvement is that the federal government is chiming in with a major contribution to Justice Counts. The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance is allocating $550,000 to the project and has become a co-sponsor.
In a webinar Wednesday to announce the federal role, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, DOJ's number three official, said that as things stand now, "our legislators, policymakers and budget agencies are forced to make critical decisions in a vacuum, and sensational narratives are permitted to run wild without official, real-time statistics to confirm or dispute those narratives."
Gupta said that Justice Counts, which so far is limited to numbers involving the corrections system ,"will help stakeholders locate timely information, identify critical gaps in data and understand how components work as part of a system."
Justice Counts is not the only effort under way to improve justice system data. Another is Measures for Justice, which is building databases at the county level and already has worked successfully with several county prosecutors and police departments to display numbers on how the policing and prosecutorial system is operating.
Although those who run criminal justice systems and their collaborators in the community welcome these privately-based projects and the DOJ backing of Justice Counts, is the federal government doing its part?
Last spring, a national group of experts led by Arnold Ventures, a foundation that helps criminal justice reform projects, issued a call for the Biden administration to take strong action to upgrade crime statistics.
The group said the criminal justice system at all levels was "frighteningly antiquated when it comes to collecting and analyzing data."
The statement urged the Biden administration to establish a national commission on justice data, to increase funding for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and take a series of specific steps to improve data transparency, create a cloud-based platform for combining federal data, and generally improve criminal justice system technology.
As of this week, the administration had not responded to the experts' statement.
In response to a question from Crime and Justice News, the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) , the parent agency of BJS, said was "aware of the recommendations by Arnold Ventures and other stakeholders."
The agency said "enhancing and expanding data collection capabilities and infrastructure is a priority," but it did not comment on the experts' recommendations specifically.
Among BJS' plans are improving timeliness of data, "modernizing data publishing" and "conducting strategic. planning."
More than a year after President Biden took office, his administration has yet to name a director for BJS and several other key Justice Department agencies dealing with criminal justice.