How Can the Average Person Help Improve Our Criminal Justice System?

05/16/2017 12:37 pm ET
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What can the average person do to best help improve the criminal justice system? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jennifer Doleac, founder of the Justice Tech Lab and an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia, on Quora:

Here are three suggestions of things you can do to help improve the criminal justice system:

1. Push for greater transparency. Unless you yourself have been arrested, you probably know little about what happens in the criminal justice system aside from what you’ve seen on TV. This lack of personal experience protects many policies from scrutiny. For instance, in many places it is difficult to find a list of the types of court fees and fines levied in your community. (Did you know that defendants can be billed for their juries?) You can help shed light on this and other criminal justice policies by requesting this information under public records law. Support local newspapers and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, which work for government transparency.

2. Insist on public ownership of data paid for with your tax dollars. Firms like ShotSpotter, which installs and monitors gunshot sensors, retain full ownership of the data they generate on gunfire incidents, even though taxpayers are paying for that service. This means that the data are not public record and cannot be shared by police departments with local residents, journalists, or researchers who can help make communities safer. (Many police chiefs are happy to have an excuse to hide the data, which could make them look bad.) This is a terrible practice, because it allows governments to get around public records law by simply outsourcing data collection to private firms (which is becoming more and more common). Don’t let them do this.

3. Support politicians who value empirical research. When a new program is proposed by your local government, ask how they’ll know if it works. What are the goals of the program, and what is the plan to evaluate its effectiveness? Academic researchers will do rigorous evaluations for free, as long as they’re allowed to publish the results, so cost should not be an excuse. Don’t accept mere action as progress — this is how we wound up with such a dysfunctional system in the first place.

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