An abundance of data has fueled the reform movement, but from prisons to prosecutors, crucial questions remain unquantified.
After Ferguson, a noticeable gap in criminal-justice statistics emerged: the use of lethal force by the police. The federal government compiles a wealth of data on homicides, burglaries, and arson, but no official, reliable tabulation of civilian deaths by law enforcement exists. A partial database kept by the FBI is widely considered to be misleading and inaccurate. (The Washington Post has just released a more expansive total of nearly 400 police killings this year.) “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year,” FBI Director James Comey told reporters in April.
This raises an obvious question: If the FBI can’t tell how many people were killed by law enforcement last year, what other kinds of criminal-justice data are missing? Statistics are more than just numbers: They focus the attention of politicians, drive the allocation of resources, and define the public debate. Public officials—from city councilors to police commanders to district attorneys—are often evaluated based on how these numbers change during their terms in office. But existing statistical measures only capture part of the overall picture, and the problems that go unmeasured are often also unaddressed. What changes could the data that isn’t currently collected produce if it were gathered?
In one sense, searching for these statistical gaps is like fishing blindfolded—how can someone know what they don’t know? But some absences are more obvious than others. Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, cited two major gaps. One is the racial demography of arrests and criminal records. An estimated 65 million Americans, or roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population, have a criminal record of some kind. But the racial makeup of those records isn’t fully known. “There are estimates, but with [65 million] people in the FBI criminal record database, we have no systematic knowledge of their demographics,” Western told me.
There may be many missing statistics from the realm of policing, but even greater gaps lie elsewhere. Thanks to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, police departments might actually be one of the better quantified parts of the criminal-justice system. Prisons also provide a wealth of statistics, which researchers have used to help frame mass incarceration in its historical and demographic content. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics maintains an annual report on the size of the U.S. prison population. The report includes state-by-state demographic statistics like inmate ages, races, crimes committed, and other crucial data for researchers and policymakers.
But while current prison statistics give a good sense of the size and scale of mass incarceration, they provide little information on conditions inside the vast constellation of American prisons. Perhaps the most glaring gap is solitary confinement. No one knows exactly how many people are currently kept in isolation in American prisons. “There are estimates, but no official count nationwide,” Western said.
The most commonly cited figure comes from the Vera Institute for Justice, which estimates that around 80,000 people are in solitary confinement at any given time in the United States. But precise statistics remain elusive despite the substantial policy implications. There is abundant evidence that prolonged isolation can be mentally and psychologically traumatic. Justice Anthony Kennedy told Congress in April that solitary confinement “literally drives men mad.”