Big Government Must Embrace Big Data

big-data-350Data analysis is the basic metric to measure the success or failure of public policy. Absent useable data, researchers, policymakers, and the general public cannot accurately judge whether an approach is working and must make uneducated guesses. For example, national polling finds that people often mistakenly exacerbate crime trends. In 2011 a majority of Americans believed crime was getting worse as the country was experiencing a steady 15-year decline. Crime data is the only way to fight the undue influence of misperception and anecdotal evidence.

Corporate America recognizes the need to develop long-term strategies for collection and utilization of data. Books on “Big Data” top bestseller lists and statisticians, such as Nate Silver, have well-deserved influence over electoral politics, business, and health practices. Unfortunately, government has been slow to use data analysis for decision-making.

Data collection standards remain a central issue in California — albeit one that rarely gets the attention it certainly deserves. California’s data collection systems, specifically in the criminal and juvenile justice field, demands continued attention and resources to best serve our state.

California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) has a central role in this data collection system. The agency has a wide range of responsibilities, which include facilities inspection, providing technical assistance to local jurisdictions, allocating federal Byrne-JAG funds, and processing county jail funding applications through Senate Bill (SB) 1022 and Assembly Bill (AB) 900. California Penal Code Section 6024-6031.6 establishes the BSCC mandates where,

“The board shall seek to collect and make publicly available up-to-date data and information reflecting the impact of state and community correctional, juvenile justice, and gang-related policies and practices enacted in the state…”

On juvenile justice policy, the BSCC reports how counties are using Youthful Offender Block Grant (YOBG) funds outlined in SB 81. In March 2013, the BSCC released the Third Annual Report to the Legislature on the Youthful Offender Block Grant. The report tracks YOBG expenditures, with a total $93.4 million given to California counties in FY 2011-12. However, with the release of the report, the BSCC admits significant challenges in tracking performance outcomes. They note,

“The nature of the data collected precludes our ability to draw inferences about cause and effect relationships between services and outcomes. BSCC has no information concerning county practices with respect to the individual youth who receive YOBG-funded services so caution must be taken in drawing any conclusions regarding outcome differences for YOBG-funded and non-YOBG-funded youth.”

Collecting unusable data is unacceptable. Governor Brown, state legislators, and policy advocates must ensure that the BSCC has the staffing, resources, and leadership necessary to meet its mandate on data collection. The state has made considerable investment through the YOBG and should have mechanisms to track whether the funds are used to maximize outcomes for our high-needs youth population. In the interest of transparency, the state must ensure that the BSCC has the resources necessary to ensure data collection is adequate and effective for policymaking.

brian goldsteinTo appropriate a famous axiom, data without policy lacks purpose, but policy not supported by data is reckless and inflexible to changing realities. The BSCC must prioritize its mandated commitment to data collection, and analysis to ensure that justice spending is data-driven and accountable. California is the tech center of the world, filled with a richness of technical expertise and innovation. The state now needs political leadership to develop policy that leverages these elements to best serve all Californians.

Brian Goldstein
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on November 20, 2013
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About Brian Goldstein

Brian Goldstein is a policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.