OP-ED: Here’s One Four-Letter Word That Isn’t Dirty

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For some, data is a dirty four-letter word when juvenile justice reform is attempted. Reform means change and data is the evidence supporting change. This makes data an easy target among those who resist change.

The resistance may create a paradoxical situation by treating data –probably the single most important tool driving successful reform — as a profane and abusive contrivance used by reformers to mislead people to get their way. What is essential to explain the need for reform becomes instead something that can’t be trusted.

Someone recently told me, in a conversation about our work on the Reform Council, “I don’t pay attention to data because anyone can skew it.” Other complaints include “The numbers are not correct” or “I don’t trust the data,” or “I don’t need data — I can see for myself.”

I have some background in social science statistics from graduate school. Despite my support of data analysis, I sympathize to some degree with these complaints. Data has become a dirty word because most states, including right here in Georgia, do not have a unified juvenile justice collection system that uniformly collects data under the auspices of a neutral entity. A unified system yields integrity and diminishes most complaints — well, the legitimate ones I mean.

No matter how much we unify a statewide data collection system with unyielding integrity, there will be those few who simply cannot accept it.

Data collection varies from state to state depending on which authority oversees the youth. Those states with intake and probation provided by state authorities are more inclined to have comprehensive and consistent data of youth. Other states give control to local courts that retain the data and make statewide analysis of juvenile justice practices difficult. Georgia has a blended system that includes dependent courts, independent courts, and some with a combination of both.

I will use Georgia as an example to illustrate this data dilemma, but the problem is a national occurrence.

Independent courts in Georgia employ their own intake and probation whereas dependent courts depend on the state to provide those services.

If the state wants data from an independent court, that court isn’t obliged to provide it. Not providing it is typically is caused by what I describe as the Data Fear Syndrome — “I just don’t trust what they will do with my data.”

Assuming everyone is cooperative and wants to share data, sometimes they simply can’t. The state operates one system and the independent courts operate their own — the systems speak different languages.

While president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, I made the development of a central juvenile data registry part of my executive plan. After experiencing one failed venture, I reached out to our state advisory group — the Governor’s Office for Children and Families — for assistance.

GOCF jumped on it. Our juvenile justice specialist, Joe Vignati — who also serves at GOCF as the juvenile justice programs director — moved forward with deliberate speed creating a Juvenile Data Integrity Stakeholders Work Group.

The collaborative effort of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Juvenile Justice among others coupled with the technical assistance of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia, GOCF was able to roll out the pilot in 2011. That was two years after I completed my term as president. It was a good feeling.

The capabilities of this new system are remarkable — including interactive map and pre-made Maps, each providing multiple ways of exploring the data from spreadsheets to pie charts as reported in a 2011 JJIE article.

Despite this capability, it remains insufficient until we have all the data to fuel it.

When the Gov. Nathan Deal commissioned the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council last year to study the juvenile justice system and make policy reform recommendations, he secured the help of the Pew Trust on the States to analyze the data so the council could determine the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

It was at this juncture that Pew confronted the data dilemma — some folks just don’t want to give up their data.

This was not Pew’s first rodeo in the art of “data dumping” and fortunately they secured all DJJ and some independent court data that provided a good picture of Georgia.

Ironically, the difficulty in obtaining data from some is what led in part to the policy recommendation to create a centralized data collection system. I supported this recommendation and further recommended we pursue the Work Group’s product sponsored by GOCF — and I still do. It removes most of the concerns that are around the “Data Fear Syndrome” by placing the data with a neutral entity.

Implementing this policy recommendation is essential to future improvements in our juvenile justice system. It is also essential to transforming the word “data” from an expletive to a professional term deemed necessary in the practice of effective juvenile justice.

Until that time arrives, we will have to endure the few who want their data and hide it too.

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