Viewpoints

To truly reform the criminal justice system, CA must stop lagging on transparency

In California, home of the Silicon Valley, data is king, both in private enterprise and the public sector. While tech companies thrive on real-time data as a matter of business necessity, civic organizations like hospitals, schools and other public institutions that run on taxpayer dollars also routinely collect data to both monitor performance and inform future decision making.

Curiously, the criminal justice system has lagged far behind in this data-driven revolution. Hopefully, that’s about to change.

Last week, Assembly Bill 1331 passed the California Legislature and is on its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, which is a much needed step toward improving the state’s data and bringing some long overdue transparency to its criminal justice system. Here’s why: Better data means better outcomes for the thousands of people who encounter that system every day, as well as improved public safety overall.

Currently, information about how our criminal justice system is working is dispersed among the country’s more than 3,000 counties, housed in different formats and in different places. Data might be digitized in one county, while 10 miles down the road it lives in a filing cabinet.

Opinion

Despite the U.S. leading the industrialized world in incarceration rates, the country lacks a centralized repository of county-level data that can isolate what’s driving incarceration and where. California is no different. Across counties statewide, our data is fractured and incomplete, which means our decision making in all branches of government is often uninformed. If we don’t really understand what is transpiring in our courts and jails, how can we make smart decisions about reform?

AB 1331 accomplishes two major things: First, it helps connect the dots so that defendant records are more accurate and complete. Second, it allows the courts to share data with research organizations, which can do the work of data analysis and review that very few local criminal justice agencies can accomplish. The upshot is better tools for practitioners across the state, from district attorneys to public defenders to judges. It’s a win for everyone.

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In my office, we’re doing what we can. We partnered with Code for America to quickly and easily expunge over 700 marijuana convictions made obsolete by the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016. On our own, it would have taken months. But by using Code for America’s software, we were able to process 50,000 lines of code from the California Department of Justice and crank out results right away. The partnership was free and the results helped remove people from the system who did not need to be there.

Similarly, we’ve just partnered with the tech and research organization Measures for Justice to push for more data transparency and accessibility in our office. Good data means better decisions and results, and so we welcome any opportunity to share data with researchers and improve our policies, practice and public safety.

This is why AB 1331’s clearing the way for courts to share data with research organizations is so critical. Yolo, like counties across California – and across the country – does not have the resources or the time to pursue the kind of data analysis that can expose trends and patterns our office would address if we could see them. We turn to research organizations for this kind of help. Similarly, we turn to data to make informed decisions about how to handle defendants, which is why that data needs to be accurate and comprehensive.

AB 1331 is a great start that the Legislature can build on as it continues to fund and pass bills designed to promote greater system transparency.

Jeff Reisig has served as Yolo County’s district attorney since 2007.
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