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Can We Build a Better Criminal Justice System Using a Data Set?

The Survey of Prison Inmates (SPI), which began over three decades ago, collects and compiles a variety of data on prisoners. Data includes conviction offenses; offender mental and physical characteristics; alcohol and drug use and treatment; social and economic characteristics; veteran and service information; criminal history; and program and work assignment experiences.

Under a new five-year contract with the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Abt Global will run advanced statistical tests on SPI data and incorporate new data sources into SPI to expand the breadth of potential research. With the expanded data set, BJS will have a wider and deeper picture of criminal justice trends and issues over time.

“These data are important because policymakers need information to guide their decisions on issues such as overcrowding, mass incarceration, an aging prison population, and racial biases,” said Jeremy Luallen, Ph.D., Abt senior associate and project director.

Rewriting What We Know about Criminal Justice

Abt’s team will work with BJS to assess data and examine changes over time. Anticipated topics are parents in prison and their minor children, mental illness among prisoners, women in prison, the relationship between social economic status and imprisonment rates, and racial disparities in imprisonment, among others.

“We know that states are trying to reduce the cost of corrections but maintain safety and effectiveness. Through these new data sets and suite of products, stakeholders will be able to look at ways to reduce recidivism, reduce costs and improve outcomes.”

The project anticipates creating a web-based tool to increase accessibility of the data.

“Abt has more than 45 years of experience investigating criminal justice issues,” said Christopher Spera, Ph.D., division vice president for U.S. Health. “This project is another example of how we are able to deliver new insights to our clients that can help them now and in the future.”

Due Diligence for Sensitive Data

While linked criminal justice data sets can help policymakers, Abt recognizes the implications for the people behind the numbers.

“Ultimately, linked data sets are people and this is a protected population,” stated Luallen. “Abt has stringent standards and processes so that both the handling and reporting of data occurs with the utmost sensitivity and security.”

Luallen emphasized that the objectives are set and approvals for the research work occur before any data sets are matched.

“We have regular trainings for staff. It’s not simply we have encrypted servers and firewalls. There are approval processes and reviews by the Institutional Review Boards and partners,” he said. “Everything we’re doing is policy driven and has a research purpose that is limited in scope and approved.”

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