Accountability Through Data Transparency

Accountability Through Data Transparency

The Manhattan District Attorney works for the people of New York. As with all government agencies, it owes New Yorkers transparency and accountability. Effective and equitable public policy is impossible without informing the public at every step. In an era when data drives policymaking, data transparency must be a priority. 

For years, the Office of District Attorney of New York has been marred by a lack of transparency. Under Cy Vance’s leadership, there has been very little public reporting or data accountability. Anyone who wants to investigate the number of misdemeanor cases prosecuted by the DA’s office in the past year, or who wonders about racial disparities in plea offers, or is searching for the number of cases that were diverted to alternatives to incarceration, will be sorely disappointed. Searching for any deeply informative data within the DA’s website yields nothing except testimony that occurred in front of the New York City Council in 2017.

In the criminal legal system—as in all legal contexts—a degree of privacy is needed to protect personal information. Nonetheless, it is possible to create open data policies that maintain protection of individual privacy. 

The data currently collected and provided to the public by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office does not come close to meeting the minimum standards that a publicly accountable government agency should provide. We know that troves of information are available; they are simply not being released to the public. 

The people of New York deserve better. Under my leadership, the District Attorney’s office will set the national standard for transparency with frequent high-quality reports, open data access, sophisticated analyses and research, partnerships with external researchers and activists, and an easy-to-navigate, data-driven website. 

Creating a top-notch data and analytics team

As the idea of being “data-driven” has become popular, it has also become a buzzword often devoid of real meaning. Politicians and officials have started claiming to use a “data-driven” approach to policy without making any substantive changes to the governing process. Likewise, simply following the data, without thinking critically about how it is derived and what it can actually tell us, leads to bad decision-making. Under my leadership, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office will become truly evidence-based. I will implement meaningful changes to the office’s structure and operations to ensure that our policies are based on facts, not assumptions or fears.

As government decision-making becomes more reliant on data and statistical analyses, the necessity of finding an adept, talented team of analysts and researchers is paramount. For that reason, I will establish a transformative data and analytics team to drive metrics, best practices, and reform. I will work with experts to develop a new performance measurement and management system to track progress towards key goals and to ensure staff is held accountable to meeting the goals and policies set out by the DA.

This office will be run by a newly-created officer: Chief Policy Scientist of the District Attorney of New York. The Chief Policy Scientist will have a level of authority equivalent to a Deputy District Attorney, and will report directly to the District Attorney. Positions like this are common in other fields, such as economics and public health, and are used by justice agencies in many parts of the world. The Chief Policy Scientist will oversee data collection and analysis across all units and operations within the DA’s office. They will serve as my chief advisor on evidence-based practices and evaluation of the Manhattan DA’s own policies. It is time that science, data, and evidence become the driving force for public safety in New York, and the Chief Policy Scientist will help move the Manhattan DA’s office in that direction.

Many government agencies struggle to find funding within their budgets to build out a top-notch analytics team to support the operations of their respective offices. However, given my plan to decline to prosecute the overwhelming majority of misdemeanors, my office will be able to shift some of the savings to hire a professional data team staffed with data analysts and scientists, database administrators, and scientific researchers to help us conduct our internal analyses and evaluations. 

Modernizing data collection systems

The Chief Policy Scientist will be responsible for overseeing a complete overhaul of the District Attorney’s data systems, including the collection, analytics, and public release of the data.

The District Attorney’s Office, the NYPD, and the New York State Unified Court System have software systems to track and manage cases through the criminal legal system. However, the data is often messy, disaggregated, and not accessible in bulk, even by staff within the agencies working with the system. While attorneys who work within the system may be able to find information about their clients and cases, it is not as easy for journalists and researchers to access bulk information about cases and operations. The system is not designed to collect and store data in a way that is accessible and analyzable. 

A top priority of my office will be to modernize the data systems of the Manhattan DA’s office. Modernizing data systems means creating a single integrated data set, with information flowing in from the courts, the NYPD, and other government agencies. This overhaul will allow us to constantly analyze and monitor data related to the cases that come before our office, and to view everything in the broadest possible context.

Currently, if someone is offered a certain plea deal as opposed to trial, do we know if that plea deal is within normal offerings by the DA’s office? Is it possible to review what plea deals have been offered for the same crime recently? No. Defense attorneys cannot access this information. These systems do not provide easy ways for anyone to assess broader patterns in the DA’s office patterns. Our goal is to make bulk data extracts and large datasets accessible for anyone, so that the inner workings of the District Attorney’s office are truly transparent. 

These upgrades will allow our team, as well as external reviewers, to answer a wide range of questions including: how many cases last year were resolved through an offer given by a judge over a prosecution objection? In cases where an up front guilty plea is required for an alternative to incarceration, how often is that plea withdrawn upon successful completion of the program? How frequently is bail set on a case that’s ultimately dismissed?

This modernization is a required step to advance greater data analytics and policy evaluation efforts. We can’t move to being a data-driven organization without good, clean datasets. We can’t evaluate justice policies for their effectiveness in NYC without collecting data on these policies and the people impacted by them. The Manhattan DA’s office must prioritize modernization of its data systems as a first step toward advancing as a data-driven, evidence-based agency. As DA, I will make this a top priority. 

Transparency and accountability

Our criminal legal system is beset by enormous racial and class disparities. As described in my Conviction Review Policy, data is one of our best tools to fight these problems head on. It will be one of my top priorities to create a system for monitoring and analyzing disparities in charges, sentences, and outcomes in order to detect and correct any wrongful actions taken by the DAs office. Under my leadership, the Manhattan DA’s office will be an example of how government agencies can use science and data to ensure their practices work for all citizens.

In addition to publicizing our robust and modernized data system, I will track and publish key metrics that the public can use to hold the District Attorney’s office accountable. Several nonprofit organizations, including Measures for Justice, have created excellent frameworks for establishing which metrics should be tracked and publicized*. My office will publish a long list of metrics, including (but not limited to) percentage of cases dismissed, time to disposition for misdemeanors and felonies, time to initial appearance, percentage of cases referred to alternatives to incarceration, and length of prison sentence.

Furthermore, my office will publish user-friendly dashboards that allow anyone to easily explore our data and operations. The reports that are currently published by the District Attorney’s office are difficult to interpret, even for experts in the field, and they do not provide the data itself. I will encourage and welcome the review of our data and policies by third party organizations and members of the public. Our data will be accessible to anyone with questions about the way that the District Attorney’s office operates, regardless of the level of training that they possess. Under my leadership, the District Attorney’s office will invite academic researchers, think tanks, and policy groups to use our data to advance justice knowledge and policy in the field. We will encourage activist groups and watchdogs to conduct investigations using our data, in order to hold us accountable.

We will conduct internal reviews to assess the impacts and efficacy of our operations, which will be released to the public. We will regularly and rigorously evaluate the ways that our policy changes impact public safety, and constantly look for better ways to reduce crime and create a more just criminal legal system. Our scientists and analysts will also publish academic and scientific papers to help expand the global knowledge base about effective reforms to the criminal legal system. 

Most prosecution offices around the country maintain bad practices for years, until they are exposed by external review, and then they attempt major overhauls to address those bad practices — or worse, they simply make superficial changes that appear to address the problem without actually overhauling anything. This approach to reform is inefficient, ineffective, and insufficient. Instead, the DA’s office must continually investigate its own policies and practices, and make constant updates based on facts and evidence. 

Policy Changes
  • Redirect a portion of the funding that is currently spent prosecuting low-level misdemeanors into a top-notch data analytics and research team.
  • Create the position of Chief Policy Scientist to oversee data management and analysis, with the authority to influence policy decisions, ensuring that our policy choices are based on facts and evidence.
  • Modernize the DA office’s data systems used to collect information about cases that come through the DA’s office.
  • Publish anonymized data that can be released without invoking privacy concerns.
  • Track and publish key metrics and analyses to make it possible for the public to hold the DA’s office accountable.
  • Conduct internal policy reviews, so that we can constantly correct course if our policy decisions do not have their intended effects.
  • Encourage independent organizations, academic researchers, and the public to scrutinize our data and hold us accountable.
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