Wisconsin needs criminal justice data collection and reporting legislation
By PATRICK HUGHES | July 7, 2020
The fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown on state and local governments combined with protests over police misconduct ensure that criminal justice reform will be a topic of debate in the next legislative session. Detailed, accurate and uniform data can help policymakers evaluate how tax dollars are being spent, and the reasons for and efficacy of incarceration.
Unfortunately, this information is often lacking in Wisconsin.
As a first step in criminal justice reform efforts, lawmakers should require the state to collect, analyze and report more comprehensive data from both state agencies and local governments. Identifying key data points and a standard process for collection and publication would fill a large gap in our current reporting structure.(1)
A good model for data collection and reporting exists. In 2018, Florida enacted the nation’s most comprehensive criminal justice data collection legislation, known as the Criminal Justice Data Transparency (CJDT) initiative. Working with the non-profit Measures for Justice, Florida identified over 100 data points to collect and report online from law enforcement, the courts, prosecutors, public defenders, jails, prisons and community supervision.(2)
Some of the data points include annual caseloads for prosecutors and public defenders; demographic information on offenders including race, education level and criminal background; county detention center (jail) populations and monthly admissions; and the daily costs per inmate of state prison, jail and community supervision. Although the CJDT has not been fully implemented, the information it generates is impressive.
The adoption of even some of its components would improve our understanding of what is happening in Wisconsin.
For example, Florida’s requirement to report convictions for different types of drug offenses gives a detailed picture of the type of drug activities that lead to criminal convictions and whether prosecutions are for selling, manufacturing or distributing versus possession for personal use. Florida provides individual data categories for possession, manufacturing, trafficking, smuggling and distributing of the following substances: amphetamine, barbiturates, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin, marijuana, opium and synthetic narcotics.
Wisconsin, in contrast, has few standards for reporting drug-related offenses and most criminal justice agencies do not provide details on the seriousness of such offenses or the specific drug involved. This means that every crime involving drugs – from possession for personal use to operating a large-scale manufacturing and distribution network – is often simply reported as a drug offense or narcotics arrest. This lack of detail makes it difficult for the public and policymakers to agree or even understand the seriousness of drug-related crimes and their impact on incarceration.
In Wisconsin, the level of transparency beyond what is required by the public records law is often at the discretion of the criminal justice agency. For example, the DOC website provides up-to-date information on current inmates and periodic reviews of incarceration trends but offers comparatively little information on the community supervision population (and there is no requirement to keep the information up to date).
The DOC’s Division of Community Corrections employs approximately 1,200 probation and parole agents supervising over 65,000 offenders on probation and extended supervision, yet little information is available about the activities of these agents and offenders.(3) For example, the DOC does not provide information about agent caseloads, the number of offenders that abscond, what crimes are committed by offenders, the number of sanctions imposed, the number of revocation hearings, the revocation rate or the rate at which offenders successfully complete supervision. This lack of basic information makes it difficult to know whether community supervision is working well for offenders or whether the violations committed by offenders justify revocation.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice collects and reports the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics from state law enforcement agencies on behalf of the federal government, but there are significant gaps in that as well. The UCR includes information about crimes committed and arrests, but no information about how prosecutors are charging crimes, making plea agreements or using alternatives to criminal prosecution. Florida, on the other hand, reports UCR statistics in greater detail and reports how criminal courts resolve cases on a statewide and county-by-county basis.
Wisconsin also lacks systemwide information on the activity of the courts. Wisconsin’s Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) provides access to individual case information from the state’s Circuit Courts but does not provide systemwide data analysis. One can learn about a single criminal prosecution in great detail but have no way of knowing whether criminal sentences are similar across different jurisdictions or whether drug courts or Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) programs are effective.
The Legislature should work with state agencies, local governments, academics and research groups to identify what data points should be collected and how to standardize the reporting process. By avoiding a top-down approach and working collaboratively, the state can avoid creating a burdensome, costly mandate that would slow implementation and disrupt day-to-day operations in the reporting agencies.
The intent of data collection should be to give policymakers and the staff of criminal justice organizations the information required to improve their effectiveness, not create an unhelpful reporting requirement that is ignored once it is completed.
Standardized criminal justice data reporting will give policymakers, researchers and the public a common source of reliable information and the ability to determine if programs are working and if taxpayer dollars are being well spent.
Patrick Hughes is a Badger Institute corrections consultant. He served as assistant deputy secretary and division administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
(1) Much of Wisconsin’s criminal justice data is effectively unavailable through public records requests because it is not collected or aggregated; each government entity maintains its own records. This means that if, for example, a person wanted to know how many criminal cases were resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement in Wisconsin in 2018 they would have to file 72 public record requests, one with each county district attorney’s office. Even if a request can be fulfilled, it may be of limited value because the agency only has access to some of the information. Requests can also be denied if the record holder is required to analyze data and create a new document to report the information. The creation of new documents or organizing data are outside the requirements of the public records law.
(3) The DOC publishes an annual DCC summary that provides general information on offender characteristics, programs and expenditures. The report is not a detailed analysis of DCC operations. The FY2019 document was 16 pages long.