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Criminal Justice & Government Reform: Justice System Data Collection

TCCRI's recently published Criminal Justice & Government Reform Task Force Report looked at improving the collection of data relating to the criminal justice system. What follows is an excerpt from the Report on that topic.

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Senate Bill 6, passed in the second called session of the 87th Legislature required the OCA to annually publish certain bail and bond data. This is a good first step; however, the state’s entire criminal justice system from arrest through community supervision- needs better data collection and more transparency. Better data is essential to aid policymakers in their attempt to craft solutions that improve public safety. More detailed data could shed light on key topics, such as better identifying defendants who are a threat to flee or to harm the public if bailed out; determining whether punishments for defendants are devoid of bias based on characteristics such as age, wealth, and race; identifying conditions attached to release on bail or community supervision are most likely to achieve their purposes; the overall effect of pre-trial detention on conviction rates; whether defendants who appear before a given judge have markedly different outcomes; and how many defendants see their legal situation deteriorate primarily because of court costs or fines they cannot pay.


To name just one of many issues, recidivism and ways to combat it could be better studied if policymakers had more accessible and specific data. Some data is already accessible to the public. For example, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) releases a biennial report on recidivism that contains useful data, such as the re-arrest rates for people under community supervision and those that have been released from prison.i But the data is not as specific as it could be. For example, recidivism rates are disaggregated by offence, but the offence categories are extremely broad: Violent, Property, Drug, and Other. Ideally, the categories could be more specific; for example, recidivism rates for people convicted of simple assault versus those convicted of attempted murder could be worth analyzing separately, because one group might recidivate at much higher rates, or might commit much more serious offences if they in fact recidivate.


Greater transparency and additional data regarding the pre-trial phase of the criminal justice system would also benefit the public. Progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reform advocates often allege that the U.S. criminal justice system (and Texas’) incarcerate too many people, treat racial minorities unfairly, and impose harsh penalties on defendants accused of “victimless” drug offences. These charges are difficult to analyze or rebut without more detailed data. Left unchallenged, they erode public trust in the legal system and increase the potential that policymakers will enact well-intentioned but misguided policies.

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House Bill 970 (87R; Dutton), which did not receive a committee vote, would have brought greater transparency to the pre-trial phase of the criminal justice system. That data collection provisions of that bill can serve as a beginning point in the discussion of how pre-trial data could be collected. Under that bill, prosecutors would have been required to report myriad data to the OCA…

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A critically important addition to the bill would be the criminal history of the defendant, including deferred adjudication and community supervision. Less important, but still worthwhile, would be the defendant’s age and whether the defendant was actually represented by a public defender (the bill lists only the defendant’s eligibility for a public defender).


Although the bill would have required extensive reporting of data, most of the data is simple and straightforward. Perhaps reflecting that, the fiscal note projected an annual cost of less than $900,000 to General Revenue over a five-year period, although local governments anticipated increased compliance costs. The annual impact to the state in terms of All Funds was higher but not prohibitive, at about $3 million annually. An investment of that magnitude could serve the state well given its potential to make the criminal justice system fairer and more efficient.


Policy Recommendation: Improve Data Collection

Data should be collected on all defendants from arrest through sentencing, using HB 970 as a template to the extent of the data it outlines. In addition, include the defendant’s age, criminal history, and type of legal counsel, if any.


You can read this and the rest of the report here.

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Note that citations have been removed from this post, but are present in the full report linked above.

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