Could Data-Driven Technology Transform A Broken Criminal Justice System?

The criminal justice system in the United States is broken in more ways than one. Cece McDonald’s recent sentencing to 41 months in a men’s prison and evidence of the stark racial bias in New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy exemplify the criminal justice system’s institutionalized racism and transphobia. The system also facilitates violence within prisons, including sexual assault and harassment, and men now outnumber women among rape victims in the United States.

While these problems may be institutionalized and systematic, The Atlantic’s Anne Milgram offers at least a partial solution: “moneyball” the criminal justice system. Smart statistical analysis, she argues, has the potential to transform the criminal justice system — and already has in some parts of the country. In New York, law enforcement uses a program called ComStat, which is “widely credited with contributing to New York City’s dramatic reduction in serious crime over the past two decades.” The program is an alternative decision-making model that that uses statistical data as a way to reduce crime and prison populations. Unfortunately, the criminal just system has failed to incorporate data analysis more broadly. Milgram writes:

Even in jurisdictions where good data exists, a lack of technology is often an obstacle to using it effectively. Police, jails, courts, district attorneys, and public defenders each keep separate information systems, the data from which is almost never pulled together and analyzed in a way that could answer the questions that matter most: Who is in our criminal justice system? What crimes have been charged? What risks do individual offenders pose? And which option would best protect the public and make the best use of our limited resources?

Technology could help us leverage data to identify offenders who will pose unacceptable risks to society if they are not behind bars and distinguish them from those defendants who will have lower recidivism rates if they are supervised in the community or given alternatives to incarceration before trial. Likewise, it could help us figure out which terms of imprisonment, alternatives to incarceration, and other interventions work best — and for whom. And the list does not end there.


The truth is our criminal justice system already makes these decisions every day. But it makes them without knowing whether they’re the right ones. That needs to change. If data is powerful enough to transform baseball, health care, and education, it can do the same for criminal justice.

But would “moneyballing” the criminal justice system effectively decrease prison populations and save the country money? In light of the Supreme Court’s decision that the California prison system must release an estimate 37,000 inmates, and with a similar story evolving in Colorado, data-driven decision-making may offer an effective alternative to the current system — or a Foucaultian nightmare.

-Nina Liss-Schultz