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Criminal Justice

OpenJustice shows striking disparities in California’s criminal justice system.

Last Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris launched OpenJustice, a new website that lets anyone compare and analyze criminal justice statistics across various demographic groups. The website is part of a broader initiative to make data about California’s criminal justice system more accessible. It promises to be a powerful tool for advocates, policymakers, and the public.

OpenJustice is billed as a first-of-its-kind transparency measure, designed “to help the public understand and engage with the criminal justice system in California.” That engagement takes  place in OpenJustice’s most public-facing component, a user friendly dashboard. There, users can examine three different criminal justice metrics: arrest rates, deaths in custody, and law enforcement officers killed or assaulted on duty. Within each metric, OpenJustice’s dashboard offers the public clear, detailed data visualizations that can be easily tailored to focus in on race, gender or other factors.

Take the arrest rate of Californians. Though blacks only account for 6% of California’s population, the tool highlights how blacks account for 17% of all arrestees.

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Another example: the booking rates of juveniles from 2010 to 2014. The charts show how among children who are arrested, black boys and girls are much more likely to go to jail than white ones.

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The tool also enables users to examine an especially relevant criminal justice metric after the death of Freddie Gray: deaths in custody. Specifically, the tool highlights how blacks in California are 3.5 times more likely to die in the process of arrest than other arrestees.

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OpenJustice also has a second component: a data portal. There, individuals can download a spreadsheet of the raw information behind each criminal justice metric presented in the dashboard.

This effort is starting small: the attorney’s general office, alongside input from academics, advocacy groups, journalists, law enforcement, and the public, is in the process of identifying other metrics to publish. The same is true of the data portal: OpenJustice has only published raw datasets it’s been able to verify do not contain sensitive information or protected information. That means this is only the beginning of a much more robust tool and initiative.

This is only the beginning of a much more robust tool and initiative.

Though the initiative is starting out small, OpenJustice stands in stark contrast to the broader national context: a striking lack of transparency in state criminal justice systems. Open data tools like OpenJustice — where government-provided documents and records, that are freely available to be used by anyone, are available in their entirety, and are released in digital, machine-readable format — can work to counter that lack of transparency. As Alexis Farmer notes on the blog of Data Driven Detroit,“open data is not the cure to social ills, [but] it is a tangible means to inform citizens on specific issues and better policy practices.”

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