Opinion: Justice McCormack: Michigan needs better court data system

Bridget McCormack

Until last year, it seemed everyone had a story (or 10) illustrating why Michigan’s jail and pretrial policies weren’t making our communities safer but were hurting families. But anecdotes don’t drive systemic improvements. Data does. As co-chair of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, I saw firsthand how data led to bipartisan legislation to resolve entrenched problems in the use of jails. As a result, Michigan jails will look considerably different in 2021, and data driven policies will help keep more people out of jail, working and providing for their families.

For example, instead of admitting thousands of Michigan residents for driving with a suspended license (or other offenses unrelated to safety), jail resources can be focused on violent offenders or on diverting those with behavioral health disorders.

I saw firsthand how data led to bi-partisan legislation to resolve entrenched problems in the use of jails, McCormack writes.

Our task force had a big lift from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which collected and aggregated the individual county-level data so that we could understand and analyze local jail populations and the costs of policies that were sending more and more people to jail. Without Pew’s help to build this data infrastructure, we would not have made such progress. How can you propose reforms, let alone enact them, when you can’t understand the problem?

While Pew’s help made a big difference to the work of the Task Force, Michigan justice system data remains inadequate. Michigan’s decentralized court system with different funding units, using different technology, and with different resources means we don’t have the comprehensive data needed to evaluate our policies. This piecemeal approach isn’t only a problem for our criminal justice policy, but also for juvenile, child welfare and civil justice policy too. Recent examples: no comprehensive way to determine how many evictions have been ordered statewide or how many kids have been securely detained for violating probation.

Over the years, court managers have done their best to work around data shortfalls. But instead of creating a workaround with every initiative, Michigan needs a central information-sharing architecture where every court is connected, collecting the same information, and data is available in real time.

Data can also be marshaled to help us identify and address racial inequities in our juvenile and criminal legal systems. Compelling stories have focused the nation’s attention and galvanized calls for reform. In my home county, a group of concerned residents looked to data for answers, culling publicly available information on 3,600 felony charges on the Washtenaw court’s website. 

Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw (CREW) issued their findings in August detailing patterns of racial disparities in charging and sentencing decisions. The limited data CREW had access to caused them to caution that they did not draw conclusions about racial bias. But the need for more and better data is plain.  

I’m grateful that Washtenaw’s justice system stakeholders are collaborating to use data to identify and address racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice policy. The incoming prosecutor, Eli Savit, is partnering with experts to improve and assess data to understand the extent and nature of racial inequities in some prosecutorial practices. And Chief Judge Kuhnke has embraced the challenge, with a serious commitment to transparency and education.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack swears in electors in the Electoral College at the state Capitol, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Lansing, Mich.

While I applaud citizen groups like CREW for stepping into this void, transparency in government demands more from us — the courts. That’s why the State Court Administrative Office (the Michigan Supreme Court’s administrative arm) is using data to understand where racial disparities exist through a unique collaboration with academic partners and the Michigan Department of Corrections.   

But there are more direct and permanent ways to build a path to real transparency. Over the years, comprehensive, coordinated data collection has repeatedly been recommended by expert commissions, but those plans have gathered dust. Before the pandemic, however, there was significant bicameral legislative interest in the Trial Court Funding Commission’s recommendations for statewide court funding reform, including a modern, centralized information technology infrastructure.

As the incoming 101st Legislature prepares to begin a new session, I look forward to continuing to work with legislators on these much-needed justice system improvement.  But as we learned last year, the first step in addressing problems is understanding them. Data is the key to understanding and addressing disparities in our justice system. 

The initial investment is a heavy lift. But the payoff will be worth it. Transparent statewide court data will provide the information needed to effect reforms and continue to build public trust in a justice system that is fair, accountable, and efficient.  

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack joined the Michigan Supreme Court in January 2013, and became chief justice in January 2019.