Racial Justice

Rachael Rollins says a lack of consistent, accessible, and transparent data is hampering criminal justice reform

"You cannot fix what you cannot measure."

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke during a press conference on May 27. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told state lawmakers Monday that a lack of consistent, easily accessible, and transparent data is hampering the ability of criminal justice reform to be fully realized in Massachusetts.

Rollins raised the issue amid public testimony during the first-ever hearing of the newly formed Joint Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights, and Inclusion, charged with reviewing existing policies and recommending new ones to tackle systemic racism in the commonwealth.

Speakers offered lawmakers suggestions for what the committee’s priorities should be during its first legislative session.

The district attorney said a “lack of consistent data and a lack of electronic data sharing” are two of the “biggest obstacles in pinpointing and eliminating system-wide racial disparities” in the criminal justice system.

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“Reliable, readily-available data is how we evolve,” Rollins said. “It’s how we adapt, and how we ensure that we are smart on crime.”

She added, “You cannot fix what you cannot measure.”

Rollins said the issue was particularly noticeable when the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants requested in 2016 that Harvard University conduct a study on racial disparities within the system with access to state criminal records.

The study, Rollins noted, was commissioned “in order to gain the precise data necessary to enact meaningful reform to this problem.” Published last year, the study found that Black and Latino people are defendants in a disproportionately high number of criminal cases and are given longer sentences than white offenders when convicted in Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe.

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Officials must be able to analyze data from across the various agencies an individual encounters in the criminal justice system in order to better understand racial and other biases a person faces, she said.

According to Rollins, the problem is two-fold. Much of the data already available to prosecutors consists of paper files stored in a warehouse, she said.

Assistant district attorneys spend “anywhere from 9,000 to 18,000 hours transcribing data from paper document paper case file jackets every single year,” she said.

Administrative staff then spends 5,000 to 10,000 additional hours per year transcribing that same data into an “archaic computer database system,” Rollins said. Altogether, the workload is equivalent to four to nine full-time staff positions, she said.

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“Furthermore, as in many manual processes, we too are vulnerable to human limitations and errors,” Rollins said. “The data we have is prone to inaccuracies (and being) incomplete, and comes with significant lag times that inhibit our ability to identify public safety trends in real time.”

Then, there is the data prosecutors don’t have, she said.

What if her office wanted to see records for people who had their cases dismissed, declined, or diverted by prosecutors to see if they committed a subsequent crime?

“In order to do this, we would have to run a manual record query for each individual person, one by one,” Rollins said. “This would result in an additional thousands of hours of human capital — human capital that our office simply does not have.

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“We are unable to quickly or easily evaluate crime and recidivism trends that may or may not result from policy changes because we lack the real time electronic data sharing with partner agencies necessary to accurately access these numbers,” she added.

State lawmakers took notice of the issue in 2018, when the Legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform law, that in part required police departments to release quarterly arrest reports, to standardize electronic data collection, and to provide data such as race for analysis, among other changes, Rollins noted.

But Rollins said her office still receives paper copies of documents, despite all agencies having each in electronic form.

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“This lack of compliance with a crucial legislative mandate and our resulting inability to have precise comprehensive data comes with costs,” she said.

Asked what explanation law enforcement agencies give to prosecutors when they fail to provide electronic files, Rollins said the computer system is archaic and would require “significant amounts of money to update.”

“But I think it’s just excuses, quite frankly, and, you know, I will leave those agencies to explain themselves to you, but I encourage you to call them before you and ask … why,” Rollins said.

She added, though, that “some people don’t want to collect data” and again pointed to last year’s Harvard-conducted study.

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“Half of the district attorneys didn’t even respond to Harvard when they asked for the information, and the rest of that provided information, it was so outdated or hard to decipher that Harvard didn’t even use much of it,” she said.

Lawmakers on Monday also heard from Boston acting Mayor Kim Janey, who detailed several equity initiatives her office is working on, including how the city can award more of its contracts to Black, Latino, and women-owned businesses.

“Certainly, the state could be helpful in this: There was an act introduced last session but not supported,” Janey said. “It was an act to expand opportunities for minority and women business enterprises in public construction projects, and so I think moving forward on that front could be extremely helpful to the work that we are already doing.”

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In opening remarks, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a committee co-chair, highlighted that while the Legislature passed a significant public safety reform law last year, lawmakers’ work to end structural racism has to be multifaceted.

“We want to consult with the community to determine our next steps, and this hearing is a step in that process,” she said.

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