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Opinion: Why the S.F. District Attorney’s Office faces crime data obstacles

By Mikaela Rabinowitz

Special to The Examiner

There has been a great deal of attention recently on the need for more criminal justice system data in San Francisco — a topic close to my heart as the director of data, research and analytics at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. As a national data transparency advocate, I have worked for almost two decades to ensure the public has access to the criminal justice system data it deserves. Unfortunately, in San Francisco, as in jurisdictions across the U.S., the available data are rarely up to the task. Despite these obstacles, the S.F. District Attorney’s Office and DA Chesa Boudin have been at the forefront of providing public criminal justice data.

As the author of a recent report about California criminal justice data and the primary drafter of 2019 legislation to increase criminal justice data transparency, I am uniquely familiar with both the need for public criminal justice data and the obstacles to providing it. In my role at the DA’s Office, I am proud of the data transparency work that DA Boudin has asked me to lead, even as I am perpetually frustrated by the technological and administrative challenges we face. Two core challenges inhibit the work that we do: 1) different components of criminal process data are split across criminal justice agencies; and 2) these data systems are shockingly outdated.

First, much of the data that the public rightfully expects does not originate in the DA’s Office. We do not even have access — let alone control over — some of these data, such as information on defendants who are in jail pretrial. Those data live in the Sheriff’s database, to which the DA’s Office has no direct access. Other data — such as data on bail/pretrial release determinations, case resolutions and sentences — originate with the Superior Court and are kept in its management system. Some of these data never make it into our data system, while other data are pushed into our system with critical limitations due to the antiquated data systems.

San Francisco’s Superior Court has used the same case management system since 1974 and the DA’s Office’s case management system is nearly 25 years old. Both systems were designed to support day-to-day operational functions, not to provide data for evidence-driven policy analysis. As crazy as it sounds, the Court’s current case management system lacks basic features like a field for sentencing. Instead, the court clerks must enter this information into open text fields in semi-structured formats that preclude easy extraction and analysis.

It is easy to blame our office for these data deficiencies. But the truth is that DA Boudin has led our office in promoting unprecedented levels of transparency. For the last 6-8 months, my data team has been grappling with how to interpret and reconcile 15,000 cases filed over the last decade missing case resolution data. Although individual case files include case outcomes, this information is not reliably transferred into data fields in our case management system and thus cannot be extracted for reporting. There appear to be a variety of reasons for these gaps: the court established a new dispositional code that was never transferred to our system; some defendants have outstanding bench warrants that have kept their cases in abeyance indefinitely; and sometimes data have been entered incorrectly or not at all.

The details are mundane, but this is the thorny part of our work: We are working with legacy systems, and the processes of extracting, assessing and standardizing the data take time. The cases we are working through constitute almost one-quarter of all cases prosecuted over the past decade, so addressing these gaps is critical for understanding how the criminal process operates in San Francisco. After all, data transparency is not just about throwing information out there — it is about providing data that accurately reflects what happens in the criminal justice system.

Despite these challenges, DA Boudin has pushed SFDA to lead the country in criminal justice data transparency. In 2018, SFDA was the first prosecutor’s office in California and the second in the nation to make prosecution data available on a public data dashboard; the vast majority still do not do so. In 2019 — even before I joined the staff — I worked with the SFDA’s Office and with then-Assemblymember, now-Attorney General Rob Bonta to draft Assembly Bill 1331: Criminal Justice Data.

That bill would have mandated regular, ongoing case-level reporting from all California criminal justice agencies — including prosecutors, sheriffs, police departments and courts — to the state Department of Justice and required the DOJ to make all data publicly available. Although the bill that passed was more limited than what we proposed, it nonetheless explicitly restated the responsibility of criminal courts to make available “criminal offender record information” to qualified organizations. Upon taking office, when DA Boudin learned that the California Judicial Council had not revised court rules regarding the release of this data to comply with AB 1331, he proactively reached out to the Judicial Council to advocate that they do so. To date, they have not.

In DA Boudin’s two years in office, we have continued to lead in data transparency, publishing new data dashboards to further promote public access to our data. The first new dashboard links data from our office to that of the police department, providing a more thorough picture of crime, and the second provides more detail on the types of crimes that are presented to our office and the actions we have taken in response. As we resolve data challenges, we will publish additional dashboards, including a dashboard on case outcomes and a dashboard on diversions.

The attacks on our office bely the truth: DA Boudin and I have both long fought for and are proud of systemic improvements to criminal justice data. The available technology and complicated legal landscape make this work surprisingly challenging, but nonetheless of the utmost importance. Those who attack our office for lack of transparency really should check the data.

Before joining the S.F. District Attorney’s Office, Mikaela Rabinowitz was the director of national engagement at Measures for Justice, where she worked with policymakers and practitioners around the county to support criminal justice data transparency.

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