« Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida | Main | New Jersey commission releases big report recommending numerous big sentencing reforms »

November 14, 2019

"Is it me, or is the government releasing less data about the criminal justice system?"

Delayed_bjs_dataThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new posting by Wendy Sawyer over at Prison policy Initiative.  I recommend the full extended posting, and here is part of its start and conclusion:

We’ve heard this question from a few advocates and journalists who, like us, depend on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and other government data sources for timely information about the justice system.  And while monitoring changes in federal data collections isn’t a core part of our work, we have observed a troubling trend: Since 2017, data releases are slowing down.

We aren’t the only ones who have noticed.  Last month, a coalition representing thousands of academic and nonprofit researchers and advocates wrote to the Office of Justice Programs with questions about missing and delayed data releases as well.

I probably don’t have to convince our regular readers that timely data is essential for identifying both social problems and effective policy solutions — and that it’s especially important in the context of criminal justice, where the human costs are so high.  And admittedly, it’s not news that government justice data has long been less well-funded, less timely, and less comprehensive than, say, labor statistics.

Even so, these publications have slowed even further — and even been curtailed — under the current administration.  To see the extent of this trend, I went through the BJS’ list of publications since 2000 and compared the time between the data collection reference dates and the corresponding report publication dates for six annual report series. I found that there has indeed been a dramatic change in the past several years....

The reasons behind these decisions and delays are unclear — is it funding problems?  Staff shortages?  Changes in leadership?  It could well be any, or all, of these problems.

BJS has been “flat funded” for years, despite the massive growth in the number and size of the correctional agencies they survey, and despite increasing demands for justice system data under laws mandating annual data collection, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act.  A National Academies publication explains that this has been a problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations, going back decades.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance and COSSA — the coalition that wrote the October letter to the DOJ I mentioned earlier — suggest that staffing problems may explain the delays.  They write, “[M]any in the criminal justice research community have heard of an alarming decline in the number of BJS staff as a consequence of hiring freezes, staff attrition, and failure to replace departing staff and experts.”  Again, this is an agency that has been chronically underfunded and understaffed relative to the herculean task of collecting and analyzing the nation’s decentralized justice system data.

And then there is the issue of leadership.  With its mandate to produce reliable, large-scale studies with national, state, and local policy implications, effective leadership at BJS requires “strong scientific skills, experience with federal statistical agencies, familiarity with BJS and its products, [and] visibility in the nation’s statistical community,” among other qualities.  That’s according to four former BJS Directors and the President of the American Statistical Association, who wrote to former Attorney General Sessions in 2017 to encourage the appointment of an experienced research director to head up BJS.

That didn’t happen.  Instead, since late 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been under the leadership of Jeffrey Anderson, whose only prior statistical experience appears to be the co-creation of a college football computer ranking system in 1992.  On criminal justice, all I could find in his history were a handful of 2015-2016 articles in which he argues against criminal justice reform.  In a National Review article, he called Obama-era Washington “tone-deaf on crime,” despite the widespread bipartisan support of criminal justice reform.  Sadly, the problems we’re seeing with data delays and politicized language suggest that the current leadership may not agree about the importance of the agency they lead.

November 14, 2019 at 03:12 PM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB