California bill looks to close data gaps in the criminal justice system

The California state legislature has passed AB 1331, a criminal justice data bill that aims to improve the quality of criminal justice records and creates a pathway for courts to share data with researchers. The bill is awaiting a signature of approval by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Authored by Assemblyperson Robert Bonta, the bill seeks to address the data gaps in criminal history records that “undermine their accuracy and reliability,” according to an AB 1331 fact sheet.

For example, the Department of Justice estimates that 60% of arrest records are missing disposition information, such as the judge’s ruling or sentencing. This can lead to criminalizing people who may be innocent. In addition, because pretrial risk assessment tools require timely and accurate information, any missing data could result in low-risk people being detained or high-risk individuals being released.

There are very few data collection standards In California, a state in which the criminal justice landscape is “highly decentralized” and each entity is responsible for its own data collection, Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of national engagement and field operations at non-partisan criminal justice data analysis organization Measures for Justice told TechCrunch. This makes it hard for the California Department of Justice to accurately track people across those systems, she said.

To address this, AB 1331 aims to establish clear collecting and reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies and courts. The legislation is designed to help law enforcement agencies make better decisions about defendants and enable courts to share data with organizations like Measures for Justice, which aims to change the way we measure and understand criminal justice data.

In 2016, California passed the OpenJustice Data Act, which led to the creation of a criminal justice data platform available to the public. The interactive platform, spearheaded by the California Department of Justice, features data from California’s 1,000-plus law enforcement agencies to allow for side-by-side comparison of agencies, like the San Francisco Police Department versus the Los Angeles Police Department.

While the OpenJustice platform represented a major step in the right direction, it wasn’t enough. AB 1331 now seeks to address the gaps that still exist within the data on both people and processes.

“You can’t change what you can’t see, and good decision-making really starts with the data and facts,” Measures for Justice Executive Director and President Amy Bach told TechCrunch. “If you want good decision-making, you need to have better data processes at the local and state level, and you have to increase data for outside researchers. This is a really exciting step forward. Basically, California is being welcomed into a prestigious group of pioneering states like Florida and Connecticut that have recently passed bills to address the criminal justice system.”

Nationwide, criminal justice reform has been having a moment lately. Last March, Florida signed into law a comprehensive and standardized data collection and public reporting process. Connecticut, meanwhile, has repealed the death penalty, decriminalized small amounts of cannabis and reformed its pardon and parole processes over the last several years. And Colorado passed a bill to make jail capacity data available to the public. California is now the latest state to make headway in closing the data gaps in the criminal justice system.

“I think this is a huge frontier,” Rabinowitz said. “I think criminal justice has been really far behind other public systems in making use of data, both in terms of investing in the tech necessary for high-quality data but also in terms of using research to drive decision-making. It’s certainly far behind where education or public health are. As we see criminal justice becoming more and more of a critical policy issue and political issue, there is more interest in having the data necessary to make informed criminal justice decisions.”