Numbers crunch: ISU researchers leverage big data to help jail
A decade ago, the McLean County jail faced a crisis. Overcrowding was forcing government officials to regularly ship inmates to correction facilities outside the county. The extra cost of housing and transporting the accused or convicted offsite blew a $750,000 hole in the jail’s budget.
The problem had been building for years, as chronicled by The Pantagraph. The Bloomington newspaper reported that inmates were even having to sleep on the jail’s floors. In the wake of the meltdown, jail officials sought advice from the National Institute of Corrections. Following the federal agency’s recommendation, the county formed the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC)—composed of the county’s top law enforcement and justice officials—to solve the overcrowding problem. Maybe more importantly, the council’s creation signaled a major change in how the county would operate its jail and court system.
The county had been inputting court data in a digital database since the late 1990s. The council wanted to begin using that information to drive decision-making.
In 2010 the CJCC selected Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development to act as the justice system’s data management arm. “The public has wanted to know that their resources are being wisely used. When the housing out of county happened, there were some people in the public who were surprised and worried,” said Center Faculty Director Frank Beck, who has headed the research project since its inception.
Beck and his student researchers have been leveraging big data to explore ways the McLean County jail can improve and better deploy its resources. Within about a year of their partnership, the CJCC had reduced the jail’s population through changes to policies to keep minor offenders out of jail and by helping the court system cut down on case processing time. The jail population had spiked as more misdemeanants were arrested and their average length of stay increased. As the CJCC and Stevenson Center worked together, those trends reversed.
“Big data is here to stay, and it can be used for the betterment of the community to resolve problems that the community has defined as a problem,” Beck said. “It’s a nice marriage. I’m not a criminologist. I’m learning from the courts and from law enforcement and so forth how the system works or how it could work better.”
For the research project, Beck leans heavily on two graduate students from the Stevenson Center’s Fellows program. Juan Zamarripa and Austin Moser were Beck’s data analysts last school year. Moser came to Illinois State after volunteering for the Peace Corps in Lesotho in southern Africa. Zamarripa arrived following two years as a college advisor at the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C.
These students are enrolled in a two-year master’s program in which they served as AmeriCorps members for the CJCC research project and took graduate classes in economics and applied community and economic development during the first year. They are now completing a one-year internship off campus.
Each month, the county gives the Stevenson Center access to a data dump, containing the latest arrests, bookings, case dispositions, etc. Some files have more than 2 million separate lines of data. Moser and Zamarripa spent 20 hours a week transforming these mountains of data into digestible reports the CJCC could use to better understand what was happening in the court system and jail. By delving deeply into the flood of numbers, the pair didn’t need to step foot in the 225-bed facility to know the jail’s operations intimately.
The researchers continue to look closely at other factors that could lead to a surge in the jail’s population. The county has been able to ease crowding at the jail due, to a degree, to a decision to downgrade some misdemeanors—for example, public urination and possession of an open alcohol container—to ordinance violations that result in a fine instead of incarceration.
Moser monitored case processing time last year. Previous student researchers had discovered the average length of stay in jail for misdemeanor offenders was largely driving inmate overpopulation. “(The CJCC) wanted to know what made cases take longer. The deal being if you know why it takes a long time, you can address the problems. They also wanted to know which judges were fast, which judges were slow and why,” Moser said. “There are a lot of factors we can’t control. We are explaining 40 percent of case processing time. The rest is up to chance or people delaying (trial)—things like that.”
The researchers do much more than just look at what led to overcrowding. They generate reports based on any questions asked by the council. “We are there meeting with a group of (the CJCC) every month, and they are talking through results that we’re giving them, and as they’re talking, we’re realizing what else they may need to know,” Beck said. “We come back in a month or two with that new info.”
The center’s monthly report topped the agenda at the CJCC executive committee’s June meeting. Moser and Zamarripa presented to a group of 15—including four judges, a public defender, the top county administrator, and the sheriff—gathered around a long conference table on the fourth floor of the McLean County Government Center. Moser and Zamarripa calmly walked the committee through short, but complex, analyses.
Moser used four pages of tables and a single graph to outline how probation had been handled in McLean County courts over an eight-year period. He looked at how often probationers violated the terms of their release.
The brief report encapsulated the complexity of the court system and the researchers’ task, as tens of thousands of probationers were categorized by the most severe charge for which they were convicted, the probation’s length, and other factors at play.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Judge Robert Freitag, the committee chair, said. “It’s a lot of information compressed down,” Moser responded.
Zamarripa’s report was a page long—a striking achievement in distillation considering he spent a semester of research into the use the public safety assessments. McLean County is part of a pilot project in Illinois that uses the tool to measure a suspect’s likelihood to commit another crime or fail to return for a court date, in order to determine whether the individual should be released from jail before trial.
“When we first present the data, we ask them, ‘Does this make sense? Does this look right to you?’” Beck said. “We don’t just walk in and say this is what’s going on. We make sure it’s valid. I’m always happy when they say, ‘That looks right.’”
One complicating factor is that laws and policies under which authority the courts must operate change over time. In 2016 the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of facing a misdemeanor charge and a possible jail sentence, these offenders are now punished with an ordinance violation and a fine. This led to a 25 percent drop in misdemeanors in 2017, the researchers found. “That’s changing what’s going on with the jail, and we are able see that in the data,” Beck said.
Zamarripa spent most of the year analyzing data related to mentally ill inmates. This has been a growing issue in the county, one being dealt with, in part, by an expansion at the jail. The new building is being equipped with larger mental health facilities and crisis beds.
“There’s no reason that somebody should be in jail if they don’t need to be in the jail,” Beck said. “The hope is that resources are available for them to go somewhere else or that the jail has the proper facilities. That’s what the expansion is about.”
Stevenson Center researchers have found the jail has become a revolving door for the mentally ill: Between 2002 and the present, inmates suffering from a mental disability returned on average twice as often as their counterparts. “That not what’s best for them,” Beck said. “It’s using resources in the system. The focus is how to best respond to a lack of state funding, knowing that our resources are limited.”
The CJCC’s partnership with the Stevenson Center has enabled McLean County to become a model to other jurisdictions. Many counties across the country do not have a CJCC, let alone a data management system, Beck said.
The Stevenson Center’s impact on the county’s justice system has been “immeasurable,” said Kevin Fitzgerald ’78, former 11th Judicial Circuit chief judge and CJCC member, who retired in July. “Their data shapes the way we approach issues, resolve issues.”
Zamarripa and Moser said they gained valuable experience learning how to utilize big data and statistics software. They plan to apply to those skills to careers as data analysts in the nonprofit and government sectors.
The research project’s greatest success is the students working together to assist the CJCC members in examining themselves and the justice system they oversee, Beck said. “I believe that a part of what a university should do is to be of service to the community that is its host. The institution benefits from Bloomington-Normal and vice versa.”
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Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.