U-M data dashboard sheds light on U.S. criminal justice system

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A new data dashboard developed at the Institute for Social Research will give an unprecedented look into the effects and outcomes of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Justice Outcomes Explorer, or JOE, makes millions of statistics available in an accessible, easy-to-navigate format that should bring about a greater understanding of how the U.S. criminal justice system shapes the lives of millions of people throughout the country.

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Developed by ISR’s Criminal Justice Administrative Records System, or CJARS, the dashboard leverages billions of lines of raw data from the justice system and blends it with data sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau to produce an unprecedented look at crime statistics and outcomes.

“Our goal was to create a product that meets the needs of a number of different stakeholder audiences,” said CJARS Director Mike Mueller-Smith, assistant professor of economics in LSA. “Whether you are an advocate, a policymaker, a researcher, working in the criminal legal system or a directly impacted individual, I think there is something that you can gain and learn from JOE.”

The project was born out of a desire to solve a specific problem with data from the American criminal justice system: It’s notoriously hard to access. The sheer volume of data is difficult to manage, and privacy restrictions make it a challenge to create a unified picture of what’s happening within the system.

But since its inception eight years ago, CJARS has been well-positioned to address this challenge, and after three years of development, JOE is ready to shed new light on the effects of the justice system.

As constructed, the data dashboard will allow users to see aggregate statistics representing interactions between individuals and the justice system, tracking key issues like recidivism and its wide effects, a noteworthy use case for researchers.

The dashboard strives to present a harmonious representation of numerous different data sources, ranging from local jurisdictions to the federal level. The intersection of data is a key feature, said Keith Finlay, co-founder of CJARS and a research economist at the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The Justice Outcomes Explorer highlights how an ecosystem of administrative records increases the value of any individual dataset,” he said. “By harmonizing data from across the country, the CJARS team has unlocked previously hard-to-access information and made it possible to compare outcomes across agencies.

“By leveraging the Census Bureau’s Data Linkage Infrastructure, JOE adds further value to CJARS data — enabling an unprecedented look at how the justice system fits into the lives of many Americans.”

The dashboard’s three-year development process included key stakeholders at both CJARS and the U.S. Census Bureau. As the work grew, CJARS partnered with independent web-development firm Hyperobjekt to create and refine the user interface that’s now available for online use.

Work on the dashboard was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

It all comes together to make a new data dashboard that ISR Director Kate Cagney calls “groundbreaking.”

“The CJARS Justice Outcomes Explorer is a pioneering platform that sheds light on criminal justice outcomes across the United States,” she said. “This groundbreaking initiative will enable greater evidence-based research and policymaking, giving stakeholders unprecedented access to socioeconomic and recidivism data.”

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