The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 26, 2018

How do prosecutors collect and use data in decisionmaking?

Prosecutors have been making headlines lately, at times hailed as the solution to violent crime or vilified as the hidden cause of mass incarceration. From either perspective, prosecutors are an important influence in the criminal justice system. 

This makes it all the more remarkable that so few data are available on prosecutorial decisionmaking, even among prosecutors themselves.

A growing number of police forces, correctional departments, and community supervision offices have begun to track data on their own operations and use that information to drive policy change, but this trend has not been widely documented among prosecutors’ offices. This means that prosecutors may be missing information that could help them better identify and respond to trends, set safety and justice goals, and measure their success.

Meanwhile, communities and other stakeholders lack basic knowledge about how these elected officials set public safety priorities and make key decisions.

As researchers, we believe that good data lead to better outcomes. That’s why, with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we conducted a national survey of state prosecutors’ offices that offers new insights into their capacity to collect and use data.

More than 150 offices answered questions about what data they collect, whether and how they use data to make decisions, and the challenges they encounter in data-driven decisionmaking.

Prosecutors reported collecting various measures and generally expressed interest in data-driven decisionmaking. But they also named several barriers that prevent them from using data in their offices, especially concerns about data accuracy and resource limitations.

  • Almost all offices that responded to the survey are collecting at least one foundational measure describing basic case flow, including the volume of cases coming into an office, the number of charges, and case outcomes. But fewer than half of respondents track all these key measures.
  • Most offices collect data on screening, diversion programs and other alternative approaches, or sentencing, but fewer than half collect data on pretrial release decisionmaking.
  • Except for offices in small jurisdictions, almost all offices have at least one electronic case management system and staff that work on data collection or analysis. But data accuracy concerns and resource constraints prevent many offices from using data more widely.
  • Many prosecutors use data to manage their offices and monitor outcomes, but systematic approaches for using data to track compliance to office policies or emerging trends are less widespread.
  • Higher levels of data collection are associated with a greater reported use of data.

Offices interested in expanding their data use can use our new self-assessment tool to determine their current level of data collection relative to other offices. With this information, they can take targeted, realistic steps to increase their data capacity.

Even offices with severe resource constraints reported employing resourceful methods of integrating data into their work, such as using an Excel file to track diversion program outcomes. Through self-assessment, a commitment to data-driven decisionmaking, and a willingness to think creatively, offices can expand their use of data starting today.

When I think about whether to track something, I ask myself: will this help me improve as a prosecutor? Will it help me do what I was elected to do for my community? If so, it’s of great value.

–Stephen Jones, County Attorney of Labette County, Kansas

Better access to data can help prosecutors demonstrate their commitment to addressing their constituents’ priorities and meeting local needs. Policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders can make resources available to improve prosecutors’ capacity to overcome barriers to using data, such as difficulties ensuring data are entered accurately. An understanding of these challenges—informed by prosecutors themselves—can make these partnerships more productive.

With more than 2,300 state prosecutors’ offices nationwide, there is huge variation in prosecutors’ interest in and engagement with data-driven decisionmaking. Some who responded to the survey expressed skepticism about the role of data in prosecutorial decisionmaking, but most respondents are tracking some measures, and many report that this improves their prosecutorial practice, from managing their offices to creating more targeted crime suppression strategies. Our report highlights opportunities for prosecutors to expand on these successes and build their capacity to more effectively serve their communities and pursue their safety and justice goals.

Illustration by Dr. After123/Getty Images.

 

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