The Yolo County District Attorney’s office in California had been uploading data to Commons, a first-of-its-kind public dashboard, for 60 days when DA Jeff Reisig noticed a glaring disparity: police were disproportionately referring people of color to his office.
For instance, the data, which is hosted publicly on Yolo Commons, showed that in January 2021, 10.5% of cases referred to his office involved Black people, despite Black people making up just 2.4% of the county’s population. “We weren't naive to the fact that there were probably issues like that,” Reisig says. “We just had no idea of the extent of it across all cities. That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment.”
Reisig took the data to the Multi-Cultural Community Council (MCCC), a small advisory group representing a diverse cross-section of Yolo County, that partnered with his office to launch Yolo Commons earlier this year. Based on MCCC’s input, Reisig’s office announced a new policy in June aimed at addressing the racial disparity: his office will no longer automatically disqualify individuals from being diverted out of the criminal justice system into restorative justice programs based on their criminal history, which they expect to significantly increase diversions for people of color.
“Any member of the public can track our diversions by race on Commons and see whether or not this policy results in any tangible differences. That's huge,” Reisig says. “I've been around a while, and most DAs around the country don't have that kind of data at their fingertips to drive immediate change.”
As communities across the nation demand criminal justice reform, and with public confidence in police at historic lows, especially among Black adults, the roadmap for meaningful change is often elusive for advocates and public officials alike. But now, a public data platform like Commons has the potential to unlock productive conversations between communities and law enforcement, and could even be the start of meaningful criminal justice reform.
“Commons is a way to speak truth,” says Tessa Smith, chair of MCCC. “Communities can use that data to share a narrative, to tell their story about how they see the movement of justice, how it's delivered in our county, and be on the same page with the District Attorney's office.”
“You can’t change what you can’t see. When we can see where things go wrong, we can work to make them right.”
Commons is the brainchild of Measures for Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that collects, standardizes, and publicizes criminal justice data in the U.S., making it easier to compare outcomes county-by-county.
Amy Bach, the founder of Measures for Justice and an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, has been working to make criminal justice data more transparent for over a decade. As a lawyer and journalist who investigated everyday courtroom failures for her 2010 book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, Bach was struck by the absence of a fundamental tool for making our justice system more just: complete, standardized, and public criminal justice data in the U.S.
“If I asked you ‘where are the good schools where you live,’ or ‘how is the water supply,’ you could find answers,” Bach says. “But if I asked, ‘how is the criminal justice system where you live,’ you would have no idea.”
That’s where Measures for Justice comes in: their team of researchers and technologists work with counties to clean up, code, and standardize local criminal justice data, so that policymakers, practitioners, advocates, and the public can understand how their local criminal justice system is performing. “You can’t change what you can’t see,” Bach says. “When we can see where things go wrong, we can work to make them right.”
After a decade of collecting criminal justice data from 20 states, where there is still a lot of data missing, Measures for Justice launched the Commons public dashboard earlier this year as a pilot in Yolo County. For Commons to work, a DA first has to agree to make its office’s data public, which many DAs have historically resisted. This data includes information on everything that happens after someone is arrested – including who is arrested, what the charge is, pretrial detention rates, and bail rates.
Measures for Justice, as an independent third party, helps process and validate this data, and makes it accessible to the public in an online portal. Then, the DA partners with community leaders–like MCCC, in the case of Yolo County–to set policy goals and to track the monthly criminal justice data in the community in Commons, from arrest to resolution, broken down by demographics. With this increased transparency, the community is more equipped to hold county officials accountable to making data-driven changes to policy.
Yolo Commons presents a promising case study of this theory. “Our Commons has pulled in law enforcement entities into this conversation, whereas before they weren't tracking their data and they weren't as forthcoming or transparent about their policing habits. Now they're under scrutiny,” Smith says.
Reisig also points out that while other DAs have built their own public data dashboards, the fact that Yolo Commons is independently vetted – controlled not by the DA’s office, but by a third party like Measures for Justice – means the public can better trust the data. “Especially in communities where there's distrust between the community and the prosecutor or law enforcement, you can't build your own dashboard, because people are going to think the data's cooked,” he says.
Measures for Justice is currently developing Commons for Monroe County, New York; East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Bernalillo County, New Mexico; and Jackson County, Missouri. Bach says they will continue to expand beyond these counties to meet increased demand for more transparent criminal justice data.
Ultimately, Bach believes Commons is more than a data dashboard; it’s a community engagement tool–a place where communities and law enforcement can come together, around a co-owned set of shared facts, to retool the justice system.
Smith agrees, saying that tension in Yolo County between communities and law enforcement “simmers all the time–it doesn’t explode that often, but it simmers quite a bit. And over time, Commons is going to be a giant help in building a relationship and trust between the communities and law enforcement.”
In Reisig’s district, the six months since launching Commons have confirmed the power of public criminal justice data as a tool for bridge-building. He says it’s like having “the same sheet of music with your community” when approaching difficult conversations around topics like equity in policing. His office even hosts a monthly town hall with the community on the data in Commons.
“I have no doubt in my mind, and absolute conviction, that it's the future and every DA should be doing it,” he says. “I think the start of real meaningful reform in America is this type of data transparency and community engagement.”