Local officials could take a lesson from a twist on this old business adage: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
The Rock County criminal justice system is beginning to look at data showing how it treats black people and other minorities differently from white people, but knowing there’s a difference isn’t enough. Officials need to expedite efforts to understand why it’s happening and what changes are needed.
That will require better data analysis.
The Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council recently looked at new data showing black people here are more frequently arrested for disorderly conduct, which is considered a bellwether offense because officers have more discretion about whether to arrest for disorderly conduct than for other offenses.
Staff at The Gazette this week analyzed data provided by the Janesville Police Department, which revealed that black kids in Janesville schools were cited, referred to juvenile authorities or arrested at a rate more than seven times that of other kids. Police and school officials admitted they hadn’t looked at the data in that way before.
Why so many more black arrests?
Community member Harriet Everette raised the issue at a recent meeting of the Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. She wanted to see data on charges filed by the district attorney’s office and decisions by judges broken down by variables such as race, gender or type of offense.
She was told county government lacks the systems for such analysis.
“Unfortunately, we’re the government,” District Attorney David O’Leary told her. “So we don’t have the data analysts or the data systems that the private sector does.”
Sorry, but we’re not buying it.
The county has options. It could, for example, contract with one of several companies Wisconsin has sprouted to analyze state court data for attorneys. The companies download in bulk the same data the public can access in a limited way through the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access program, commonly known as CCAP. The court data contains much of what would be necessary to find the kind of answers Harriet Everette and others want to see about the role race plays in our local criminal justice system.
Janesville police and school officials said it’s not clear to them why black kids at schools are the subject of police actions so much more frequently than other kids.
“Schools are a reflection of the communities in which they reside, and so the problems that exist in any given community, whatever those may be, including racism, invariably end up manifesting themselves at school,” Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal said.
Janesville Deputy Chief John Olsen said it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the numbers without looking at the details of each incident and knowing the history and background that led to each moment.
We don’t disagree with either statement, but it’s time to stop head-scratching and start finding answers because what’s happening is having long-lasting impacts on individuals.
Lonnie Brigham, who has worked with a citizens committee advising Janesville police on relations with black people, called the school data “scary.”
“To me, that’s just a sad commentary on the school-to-prison pipeline,” he told The Gazette. “Because once these kids get a record, they are marked for life.”