As I noted in May, much statistical information about the U.S. criminal-justice system simply isn’t collected. The number of people kept in solitary confinement in the U.S., for example, is unknown. (A recent estimate suggested that it might be as many as 80,000 and 100,000 people.) Basic data on prison conditions is rarely gathered; even federal statistics about prison rape are generally unreliable. Statistics from prosecutors’ offices on plea bargains, sentencing rates, or racial disparities, for example, are virtually nonexistent.
Without reliable data on crime and justice, anecdotal evidence dominates the conversation. There may be no better example than the so-called “Ferguson effect,” first proposed by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald in May. She suggested a rise in urban violence in recent months could be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement and police-reform advocates…
Gathering even this basic data on homicides—the least malleable crime statistic—in major U.S. cities was an uphill task. Bialik called police departments individually and combed local media reports to find the raw numbers because no reliable, centralized data was available. The UCR is released on a one-year delay, so official numbers on crime in 2015 won’t be available until most of 2016 is over.
These delays, gaps, and weaknesses seem exclusive to federal criminal-justice statistics. The U.S. Department of Labor produces monthly unemployment reports with relative ease. NASA has battalions of satellites devoted to tracking climate change and global temperature variations. The U.S. Department of Transportation even monitors how often airlines are on time. But if you want to know how many people were murdered in American cities last month, good luck.
There could be several issues at play including:
- A lack of measurement ability. Perhaps we have some major disagreements about how to count certain things.
- Local law enforcement jurisdictions want some flexibility in working with the data.
- A lack of political will to get all this information.
My guess is that the most important issue is #3. If we wanted this data we could get this data. Yet, it may require concerted efforts by individuals or groups to make the issues enough of a social problem to ask that we collect good data. This means that the government and/or public needs a compelling enough reason to get uniformity in measurement and consistency in reporting.
How about this reason: having consistent and timely reporting on such data would help cut down on anecdotes and instead correctly keep the American public up to date. They could then make more informed political and civic choices. Right now, many Americans don’t quite know what is happening with crime rates as their primary sources are anecdotes or mass media reports (which can be quite sensationalistic).