Can We Use Data To Reform The Criminal Justice System?

Given the issues it is currently facing, could data make a difference?


The use of big data in crime prevention has been a subject well covered over the past few years. As far back as 2013, major news outlets have been discussing its use to prevent crime and help police officers perform to the best of their ability.

However, it may well have a significant part to play in reforming the criminal justice system, a system that currently needs to be overhauled.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup, trust in police is now the lowest it has been since 1993, with only 52% of the population trusting their police force. This is even lower amongst racial minorities, especially black people, with just 30% saying they trust the thin blue line, which is down 6% compared to the previous year. We ourselves have covered how data has played a part in making the situation worse, with the use of some algorithms creating biases within data that has meant minorities and those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement.

However, while data may have done its share of damage in law enforcement, it looks like it will also play a big part in the solution.

One of the most important elements is the ability to make the police force as informed as possible, without feeding data through too many algorithms beforehand that may cause bias and continue causing issues for people and police officers. One of these is being used by the NYPD called the Domain Awareness System, which allows them to see information about what’s in front of them that could help with their investigation.

For instance, an article discussing this in Fortune noted an incident where police responded to shots being fired on the roof of a building and could then identify that there was somebody in the building with an outstanding warrant, who was found with guns in their possession. This instant access to information through smartphones and data, meant that the officers could quickly and easily apprehend the suspect without needing to waste their time and public money investigating the incident.

It is a small change that is likely to have big consequences. After all, the warrants that were out on the suspect were already known to the police, the building she lived in was also known, but the access to the data was lacking. It is this access to data when it was needed that was so useful, and this kind of work has saved considerable police time, without getting in the complexities and issues that more in-depth analytical work has sometimes created.

Access to officers alone is unlikely to change much in the police force though, and thanks to an initiative brought in by the Obama White House called the Police Data Initiative (PDI) which ‘supports local police department efforts to leverage data to increase transparency and accountability and build trust with their communities’ they are going some way to make their work more transparent to the people they serve.

Given that many of the issues surrounding policing in the US revolve around a lack of transparency, with police officers generally seen as being protected and above the law, making the work being done as transparent as possible is essential to building trust. It is not only something that the government believes, but is important at a local level. John Mina, police chief of the Orlando PD says of the initiative ‘The purpose of posting this data is to be transparent and let the public have access to this information. Our citizens will be able to review the information themselves and not have to rely on the media or their narrative and opinion about the incident.’

The police, perhaps more than any other national institution, have been polarized by media narratives, with liberal leaning media claiming they are targeting minorities and right wing media painting the police themselves as the victims. This data can go some way to bringing their own narrative back under control. Through opening up their data at a local level, they can let the people they serve see exactly what they’re doing and cut through all of the media analysis of it.

As we have also discussed, the use of data in the past has led to a situation where some groups are unfairly represented by the data and therefore targeted in the future. It is one of the key reasons why criminal justice reform is needed in so many areas - we have ended up with a situation which is unfair to some in society. Ironically, it may be data that can solve this problem too.

Finding patterns is what modern data technologies and data scientists do and they have the skills to change entire industries over the course of only a few months. It is possible to take the same approach that has worked so well in other areas and apply it to finding out what the inaccuracies have created and thus help to create solutions to these problems.

The entire premise of big data is the ability to bring in disparate sources to find correlation and this seems like the prime example. There should be a comprehensive approach looking at how they were arrested or whether crime rates in that area is higher purely because it’s more tightly policed. After all, you are more likely to be arrested for a minor infraction in a town where there is little other crime, whilst in a high-crime area it is likely to be missed.

There are ultimately thousands of different data sets that can be used to help revolutionize the criminal system in the US, from finding out what is genuinely impacting certain areas and stopping it, through to identifying where bias exists and eliminating it. 

Big data hype small

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