Why Juvenile Justice Systems Need Local Data

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Local application of juvenile justice policies vary widely and understanding these trends is of fundamental importance to policymaking. Governors, legislators, stakeholders, and public watchdogs all use data to inform their understanding of the impact of a proposed law, as well as the effectiveness of the currently implemented system. The results of juvenile justice policy are far-reaching; therefore, it is critical that accurate and relevant data inform policy decisions.

In California, 58 autonomous counties administer juvenile justice serving 99 percent of the state’s justice involved youth. The state’s role currently involves operating three dilapidated and isolated youth correctional facilities that house about 930 of California’s more high-need offenders. The state’s decentralized approach to governance has fostered local innovation within California, but it also created a need for increased local data-driven analyses.

County-level data reveals stark contrasts regarding historic county practices. Analyses showed many counties are strongly self-reliant, serving even their most serious youth offenders locally. On the other hand, several counties are heavily state-dependent, creating a disparate impact on youth statewide.  Through these data analyses, policymakers are able to ask, “if there have been successes in some counties, why not elsewhere?”

However, while county level data is useful, it must be accurate and relevant. Some counties have few resources to devote to data collection and duty officers are often required to input information into archaic systems without proper training or direction. As a result, counties will often only collect the minimum metrics mandated by statewide agencies. These statewide agencies are equally resource constrained and collect only what is required by statute, with minimal instruction or verification of data they are given. Thus, California’s juvenile justice data are held fragmented by several different statewide agencies, with minimal communication between them.

Variations and errors in data collection at the local level obfuscate important issues of policy impact. This has become even more apparent in California, following a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) investigation that found extensive errors in the direct filing dataset dating back to 2003. Prosecutors were granted the ability to direct file a youth in adult criminal court for commission of serious crimes in 2000. The issue of direct filing has continually been an issue in California and nationwide.

Policymakers and advocacy groups have been using the aggregate data on direct filing to inform policy decisions for years. For example, the Attorney General uses direct filing data to monitor the administration of juvenile justice in California. Several research institutions have relied on these data to conduct policy research. Prosecutors used these data as a basis for opposing closure of California’s youth correctional facilities. Yet, CJCJ’s analysis of historic county-level data revealed large discrepancies throughout the official dataset, resulting from erroneous reporting and insufficient metric definitions. These inaccuracies lead to misdirected policy research and a lack of clarity around policy decisions.

To pursue an efficient and humane juvenile justice system, policymakers must have insight into the current, historic, and proposed application of justice policies. This insight must extend beyond anecdotal observation and target the point of impact; that is, policy must be informed by visibility into daily operations of local jurisdictions. Statewide aggregate data analysis can only present a portion of the California juvenile justice story.

In a decentralized system, local practices are essential to understanding state policy. State agencies are the appropriate conduit for this information, being able to provide oversight and guidance to local jurisdictions while also consolidating the data to form a cohesive picture of statewide practices.

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