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Beth M. Huebner: Policymakers and the public need clarity on what drives incarceration rates

Beth M. Huebner: Policymakers and the public need clarity on what drives incarceration rates

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Gov. Mike Parson’s recent acknowledgment that criminal justice data is crucial to reducing the prison population is a timely reminder that Missouri citizens don’t have the information they need to understand what’s driving incarceration rates in their state — especially when more than 52,000 people are behind bars and Missouri spends more than $700 million a year on corrections expenditures.

Most people encounter the criminal justice system at the county level — and our 114 counties are where most incarcerated people are released and rearrested. And yet, despite counties being the place where the most important justice decisions are made, the data is limited. Local agencies do not report criminal justice data in an easy-to-use format, or collect and release data in a systematic way. Very little data is made available to the public.

What’s more, state statute mandates that any data on non-conviction cases, even broad trends, cannot be released by the courts. Ostensibly, the statute is designed to protect the privacy of defendants who were not convicted — to protect their records from being sullied in a way that isn’t fair. The flip side, however, is that we now know very little about pretrial detention in the state, about pretrial diversions, bail, and timeliness of case resolutions — all of which are good gauges of how well Missouri’s system is serving the public.

Even less data is available on the decisions made by prosecutors. Most prosecutors in Missouri use the same case management system to record data, but there are differences in what data they track, and the consistency with which data is entered varies. A few counties still use paper records. If anyone wants to know how prosecutors are serving the public in Missouri, you’d have to contact all 115 counties individually because there is no one authority that governs data release.

For law enforcement, the same applies. At least 24 different case management systems are in use across the state, which vary in tracking, reporting and data-sharing capabilities. The years of data available vary significantly as well, with some agencies only having recently begun to record data electronically. If anyone wants to know how law enforcement is serving the public in Missouri, you’d have to contact all 115 sheriffs and jails and likely hundreds of law enforcement agencies, over 50 agencies in St. Louis County alone.

This is not a good situation. With the bar set so high for data access, how can Missourians really know how well all their taxpayer dollars are working?

There is good news: The Office of State Courts Administrator recently adopted a new data management system — Show Me Courts — that promises to improve data collection and sharing practices. And this month, Measures for Justice released county-level data that addresses Missouri’s growing prison population by breaking down which counties are driving some of that traffic.

Measures for Justice is an independent nonprofit that collects and publishes county-level data on a free and public Data Portal. The Data Portal has seven states’ worth of data, which span over 450 counties, and will have 20 states by the end of the year. This kind of data helps us understand and compare performance within and across states like Missouri.

For instance, Measures for Justice’s data reveals disparities across the state for drug-possession cases that end in prison. In some counties, less than 1% of individuals were sentenced to prison for drug possession while other counties sentenced 50% of defendants to incarceration for the same crime. When you break the data down by drug type, some counties incarcerated more than 14% of offenders for marijuana possession compared to the state average, which was 2.2%.

Similarly, prison rates for nonviolent felonies varied across the state, with Dekalb County coming in at 79% and Gasconade at 14%.

Looking into numbers like these can help expose patterns in criminal justice practice, inform policy, encourage fiscal responsibility, and advance public safety. Aren’t you curious to know how your county could be contributing to a statewide problem? Don’t you want to know why counties have different numbers and what’s driving them? Imagine how a policymaker feels — trying to solve problems without the facts.

Missouri’s Department of Corrections has already put initiatives into place to reduce our prison population while maintaining community safety. And Gov. Parson has announced additional plans to reduce the prison population and close prisons. Now it’s time to make sure we have enough good data to track how well these programs work.

It’s time to get Missouri’s data house in order.

Beth M. Huebner is a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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