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Funding and Leadership Failures Result in Less Criminal Justice Data

Several late or missing reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) highlights a trend toward less reporting and accountability by the federal government.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for more funding for and access to criminal justice data, sent a letter on October 18, 2019 to the Department of Justice expressing concern about the federal government’s failure to post research data critical to assessing trends in crime, policing and prisons.

This data is critical for nonprofits and legislators when proposing policy initiatives based on trends and issues arising in a criminal justice context.

 “How can lawmakers and policy experts engineer legislation to address a problem across several distinct political and bureaucratic regimes if they have no idea what they’re dealing with in the first place?” asked Pacific Standard magazine.

Several important data sets have yet to be released or were significantly delayed. These include the Survey of Prison Inmates, the BJS Background Checks for Firearms Transfers Report Series, and the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP). The DCRP data is especially important since its data includes information on suicides of people in custody, a number that was increasing at an alarming rate in 2014 — the last year for which this data has been made available.

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see any movement on this front until a new president takes office. President Trump appointed Jeffrey Anderson to lead the BJS in late 2017. Anderson’s only prior statistical experience was his co-creation in 1992 of a company that tracked football statistics. Also distressing is a shift in language used by the BJS since his arrival, which reflects the administration’s priorities of emphasizing punitive views on juvenile justice issues and minimizing racial disparities in policing.

Modern, bipartisan approaches to criminal justice reform have centered on a “smart on crime” approach. Such an approach relies on good data to make better, more informed decisions. It’s difficult to know how we can do better when we’re deprived of data critical to making those decisions.