Local prosecutors hold enormous power over the outcomes of criminal cases. Their decisions – whether to file a case, what charges to bring, what dispositions to offer, and what sentences to seek – impact the lives of individuals and their communities every day.
Yet, for decades, little has been known about the inner workings of prosecutor’s offices, as elected prosecutors’ historical resistance to data and transparency has shielded them from accountability both internally and externally. But as more and more communities demand new approaches to prevent crime and promote justice – and as misinformation about justice reform abounds – it’s long past time to unlock the black box of prosecution.
A new generation of prosecutors is helping us do just that by investing resources in cultivating data and releasing it to the public, improving both the effectiveness and equity of their offices and thereby promoting public safety. Now, more need to follow suit.
Seeking justice in a criminal case is a complex and difficult job, and that job is often made more difficult by a lack of data available to the elected prosecutors who oversee this work. Imagine running a prosecutor’s office that processes thousands of cases each year, but you have no system to track how individual prosecutors are handling pretrial release recommendations, where office resources are being focused, how and where cases are languishing in the system, the ultimate disposition recommended and imposed in cases, or the racial disparities that may be perpetuated by your own office. How would you know whether your staff is adhering to the policies you put in place? How do you measure your office’s success?
Building a data infrastructure that allows an office to quickly and accurately answer these questions is not an easy undertaking. But it’s more important than ever that policymakers, advocates, and the public have a common set of facts they can work from and a common understanding of how prosecutors are making these critical decisions. And that requires improved data capacity in the more than 2,000 prosecutor’s offices nationwide.
That’s why Fair and Just Prosecution recently released “Advancing the Use of Data in Prosecution,” a first-of-its-kind report that lifts up the inspiring data work happening in prosecutor’s offices across the country and offers guidance for others seeking to improve their systems.
There is a lot to be learned from the elected prosecutors already investing in this work. In Philadelphia, for example, data is a critical piece of District Attorney Larry Krasner’s efforts to build trust with the community after strained relations under his predecessors. His office routinely provides up-to-date information on trends in arrests and charging decisions and publishes its metrics of success online, making its priorities unmistakably clear to the public.
Data can also show where efforts are falling short and provide accountability for a prosecutor’s promises. For example, in October 2022, the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office released data on its bond data dashboard showing that line prosecutors were recommending detention for nonviolent offenses more often than Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano believed was necessary to protect public safety. He used this data to assess his office’s adherence to its bond policy and after more systematic re-training efforts, the office saw releases for nonviolent misdemeanors increase from 62 percent to 92 percent cases over the course of 9 months.
These numbers have real-world implications – instead of sitting behind bars, more people accused of minor offenses are able to return home to work and care for their families while their cases are resolved, an outcome that research has shown improves both the individual’s prospects and community safety.
For some offices, data has become ingrained in the everyday management of caseloads and outcomes, bringing data-driven systems that have largely been the domain of the corporate world into public service. In Seattle, for example, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office uses internal dashboards to monitor case flow and identify inefficiencies – such as overloaded line prosecutors or frequently delayed hearings – across the thousands of cases they handle each year. Improving these internal processes can help ensure that cases (and the individuals whose lives they touch) don’t languish in the system, and thereby promote greater trust and faith in the integrity of the process.
These successes can be replicated in other offices, but doing so requires elected district attorneys – and the officials who fund them – to prioritize building data capacity. Sadly, we have yet to see that happen. But making the investment and addressing the short-term obstacles to enhancing data capacity – including outdated IT infrastructure, unstandardized data entry, funding challenges, and staff capacity – is more than worth the long-term gains in fairness, transparency, and fortifying faith in a system where bonds of trust have been eroded.
Building data infrastructure inevitably requires financial resources at a time when many offices are facing decreased funding, higher caseloads, and fewer staff. But this work is possible, and not just for the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country.
For the many smaller offices that don’t have the capacity for an in-house data team, external partnerships can provide the expertise needed to carry out high-value analyses. For example, Duke University’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice developed a tool used by the Durham County (NC) District Attorney’s Office to examine plea bargaining practices, producing novel research on some of the most impactful and least understood work that prosecutors perform.
Their data collection tool can now be adopted by other offices that wish to better understand how cases are processed by line attorneys, shedding light on the sometimes hidden mechanisms behind the way more than 95 percent of cases are resolved. District Attorney Satana Deberry said the project “has already shed new light on how to achieve public safety, fairness, and justice for our Durham community.”
And in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, researchers were brought in to evaluate the district attorney’s Misdemeanor Drug Diversion Program. The study found that the program reduced the likelihood of reoffending by 16 percent, validating how alternatives to traditional prosecution can benefit community safety and well-being.
The ultimate goal of prosecutors is to promote public safety and pursue justice. Recent efforts by reform-minded prosecutors nationwide show that data can help achieve both of these aligned objectives. There is no one path to effective data use by prosecutors, but the experiences gathered in Advancing the Use of Data in Prosecution underscore that developing data capacity is possible for every prosecutor’s office and is well worth the investment of time and resources.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a former federal prosecutor, and the author of Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st Century Prosecutor.
Ryan Gentzler is the Data Innovations Director at Fair and Just Prosecution.
Michaela Bono is a Research and Policy Associate at Fair and Just Prosecution.