R Street Policy Study No. 169: How Data Can Improve Prosecution, Reduce Jail Populations and Advance Justice
WASHINGTON (April 3)-In recent years,
so-called progressive or reform-minded prosecutors have received much attention
in the news media.
In a new policy study, R Street Senior Fellow Lars Trautman explains how these prosecutors can achieve their goals by using better prosecutorial data to advance criminal justice reform more broadly.
Because prosecutors are so powerful, it is generally
assumed that inequitable outcomes result from deliberate prosecutorial action. Trautman
argues that the overwhelming majority of prosecutors—not just the progressive
or reform-minded ones—are trying to achieve just outcomes, but are often
deprived of the information and tools to do it. Data is the key to closing this
gap between good intentions and positive results.
Prosecutorial data investments prove that
criminal justice reform is not a zero-sum game: Helping prosecutors can also
mean helping defendants. For example, data on case dispositions can help
prosecutors identify which cases they can dismiss or decline to file in the
first place. This means fewer defendants and reduced caseloads—a win-win for
prosecutors and defendants.
The author notes that increasing
prosecutorial capabilities may seem like a counterintuitive way to support
criminal justice reform, but asserts that data investment is a successful
strategy for advancing numerous reform goals. These include addressing
inequitable racial and ethnic disparities, reducing the number of case filings
and increasing the use of alternatives to detention.
The author concludes, “whether prosecutors
are seeking to change how the justice system works or just their own office,
data should be a tool of first resort.”