Journalist Amy Bach covered America’s criminal justice system for years. She didn’t like what she saw. There was the public defender who pleaded 48 people guilty in less than two days and the county that hadn’t prosecuted a single domestic violence case in 21 years.
She came to understand that these injustices occurred, in part, because no one was keeping score; no one was tracking outcomes to determine how well the courts, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the police were delivering justice.
Bach exposed these inequities in her 2010 book, “Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court,” which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. “The book shows how well-intentioned prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys can become so inured to patterns of problems that they no longer see them,” says Bach.
For Bach, it wasn’t enough to document these failings. In 2011, she founded Measures for Justice, a Rochester-based nonprofit aimed at “developing data tools and services to help communities reshape the criminal justice system.”
Measures for Justice now has a $16.8 million budget—up from a $7.1 million budget and expenditures of $5.95 million in 2020—and last year raised $23 million in pledges and multiyear commitments, nearly all from foundations. It hopes to raise more than $50 million through 2027 to scale its national impact. Measures for Justice has a staff of 60, many of whom are criminology researchers or data engineers.
“Everything is siloed in America,” says Bach. “The prosecutor’s data doesn’t connect with police data. If someone is arrested and the case is dismissed, police often won’t know. Our goal is to make things public, so the community can be at the table.”
In the coming months, the Monroe County district attorney’s office will become the third in the country to adopt Commons, a data platform created by Measures for Justice. (The second, the East Baton Rouge district attorney’s office in Louisiana, will launch this month.)
Commons will allow prosecutors to track policy goals, which are co-created with community advisory boards. It also will follow the monthly progress of criminal cases through the system, break down the databy race, ethnicity, age, gender and, in some cases, offense type and severity. To increase transparency and accountability, Commons data will be publicly available.
The first county to pilot Commons was Yolo County in northern California, with a population of 200,000. Yolo County District Attorney, Jeff Reisig had expressed frustration at the lack of reliable criminal justice data.
How does Commons work? Every few months, Yolo County gives Measures for Justice new data and the nonprofit compiles and cleans it. “Once we all believe the data is accurate, we publish it,” says Mike Works, Yolo County’s innovation chief.
He thinks the most valuable aspect of the data platform, which the prosecutor’s office began using in 2021, is its ability to show how trends change over time. “If you don’t see change, you can’t address it,” he notes.
Commons data are beginning to drive criminal justice policies in Yolo County, Works says. For example, data revealed that a low percentage of individuals charged with felonies were being referred to drug court, or other diversionary programs, instead of being incarcerated. And the rate for people of color was lower still.
“We delved into why. It turned out that felony arrests made defendants ineligible for diversion,” says Works. The policy was changed so that a felony would not automatically disqualify someone for a diversion program. “We wouldn’t have been able to discover that without being able to see the data,” he adds.
Reisig set a goal of increasing felony diversions to 10 percent by September 2022. Instead, they rose to 18.4 percent by January 2022. According to data published in the same year, the percentage of Blacks diverted to alternative programs, for both felonies and misdemeanors, increased from 9.1 percent in 2020 to 25 percent in 2021. For Hispanics, it rose from 9.4 percent to 29 percent over the same period.
Asked what advice he has for Monroe County officials, Works says: “Don’t be afraid to share the data. Take a look at the data, see what’s happening in the community and push for the change that’s needed.”
Currently, Commons projects are also under way for prosecutor’s offices in Bernalillo, N.M., Thurston, Wash., and Jackson, Mo.
Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley says she is proud to partner with Measures for Justice. “Historically, criminal justice data is difficult to collect and analyze,” she says. “The work we are doing will provide an independent look at our data. Providing this information in a user-friendly model will allow the entire community to see a comprehensive picture of what occurs within the district attorney’s office, while taking the complexities of criminal justice into account.”
Muhammad Shafiq, executive director of the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College, is one of the members of Commons’ community advisory committee. Shafiq says the interfaith community is looking forward to giving input on how the criminal justice system can be improved.
Bach, who lives with her husband and teen-aged son in Rochester, graduated from Brown University and began her journalism career at the Arizona Republic; she went on to work at The American Lawyer. Bach was awarded a Knight Foundation journalism fellowship at Yale University, and later graduated from Stanford Law School. Among other honors, she has received the Charles Bronfman Prize, an award of $100,000 given annually to a humanitarian under the age of 50 “whose innovative work, fueled by their Jewish values, has significantly improved the world.”
As CEO of Measures for Justice, Bach has expanded the organization’s reach. In 2017, the nonprofit launched a data portal for six states, designed to show how local courts were performing. By 2020, there were data for 1,200 counties in 20 states.
Looking forward, Measures for Justice is developing a national set of standardized police measures, co-created by police and community members, which will be displayed on Commons. Measures that will be tracked include: public trust in the department, use of force, accountability, training, and officer wellness and safety. The Rochester and West Sacramento, Calif., police departments will be the first to test the data platform. Rochester’s will launch next year, says Bach.
She stresses that Measures for Justice is a neutral party, not an oversight body, and would not have the authority to discipline officers.
“Our goal is to see what’s happening and give communities (data) so they can identify policies,” says Bach. “We don’t tell (clients) what to do; they decide what to do, given the data.”
Greater transparency and accountability may, however, help mend the deep mistrust that exists between some city residents and their police departments, she adds.
Asked how Commons will compare to the other criminal justice initiatives attempted in Rochester over the years, Bach replies that the data platform will give communities the opportunity to talk about change—and what that change would look like—based on facts.
“It is a piece of what is needed—it’s not a cure-all,” she says, adding: “Everyone wants to make the system safe and more fair. And to save money. But we can’t do it without data. That’s why our motto is “no data, no change.”
Donna Jackel is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Muhammad Shafiq as a member of Commons’ community advisory committee. It also misstated some data from Yolo County in northern California.