Moneyballing Criminal Justice

Smart statistics have changed baseball, health care, and many other industries. But why haven't they changed crime and punishment?



In the movie Moneyball, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) learned that the key to building a successful baseball team on a shoestring budget was deceptively simple: When signing a hitter, the crucial statistic was his on-base percentage. This flew in the face of the conventional wisdom that only an experienced scout could adequately size-up a player and pluck successful contributors from the bargain bin. But crunching the numbers revealed that paying a premium for a big-name player with lots of home runs was an expensive, ineffective way to build a team. On-base percentage, by contrast, was powerful but unglamorous -- and it was therefore undervalued by other teams. As a result, it became the key to the cash-poor A's success.

The importance of what happens between arrest and sentencing has gone largely unnoticed

This insight -- that smart statistical analysis can win baseball games -- has transformed how the sport is played. Technology has driven equally important shifts in other fields, including ones that traditionally did far less data collection and analysis than Major League Baseball. Innovative health care providers are examining electronic medical records to identify the neediest patients and provide them with better preventative care. In Camden, New Jersey, for example, a pilot program that targeted a small number of super-utilizers reduced this group's monthly emergency room visits by 40 percent and their hospital bills by 56 percent. In public education, technology can identify patterns in school data, allowing administrators to figure out which students are at the greatest risk of dropping out and to direct resources their way. Hamilton County, Tennessee, for instance, used this technique to reduce its dropout rate by 25 percent.

One area in which the potential of data analysis is still not adequately realized, however, is criminal justice. This is somewhat surprising given the success of CompStat, a law enforcement management tool that uses data to figure out how police resources can be used to reduce crime and hold law enforcement officials accountable for results. CompStat is widely credited with contributing to New York City's dramatic reduction in serious crime over the past two decades. Yet data-driven decision-making has not expanded to the whole of the criminal justice system.

But it could. And, in this respect, the front end of the system -- the part of the process that runs from arrest through sentencing -- is particularly important. At this stage, police, prosecutors, defenders, and courts make key choices about how to deal with offenders -- choices that, taken together, have an enormous impact on crime. Yet most jurisdictions do not collect or analyze the data necessary to know whether these decisions are being made in a way that accomplishes the most important goals of the criminal justice system: increased public safety, decreased recidivism, reduced cost, and the fair, efficient administration of justice.

Even in jurisdictions where good data exists, a lack of technology is often an obstacle to using it effectively. Police, jails, courts, district attorneys, and public defenders each keep separate information systems, the data from which is almost never pulled together and analyzed in a way that could answer the questions that matter most: Who is in our criminal justice system? What crimes have been charged? What risks do individual offenders pose? And which option would best protect the public and make the best use of our limited resources?

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

While debates about prison over-crowding, three strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences have captured public attention, the importance of what happens between arrest and sentencing has gone largely unnoticed. Even though I ran the criminal justice system in New Jersey, one of the largest states in the country, I had not realized the magnitude of the pretrial issues until I was tasked by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation with figuring out which aspects of criminal justice had the most need and presented the greatest opportunity for reform.

The evidence is stark: Each year, there are approximately 13 million admissions to local jails, and, according to the FBI, fewer than 5 percent of arrests are for violent crimes. Yet many of those arrested are kept in jail for long periods even before they are convicted. According to Department of Justice (DOJ) data from 2004 (the latest available) on felony defendants in major counties, offenders who do not make bail spend an average of 121 days behind bars before even going to trial. And at any given time, nearly two-thirds of those in America's local jails are pretrial defendants. Housing this population, according to DOJ, costs state and local governments $9 billion a year.

The point is not that 13 million jail admissions are too many or too few. Nor is it that $9 billion is too much or too little to spend incarcerating defendants before trial. The point is simply that, without using technology to collect and analyze the relevant data, we simply don't know. And given the size of these figures -- not to mention their importance to public safety, government spending, and the fair administration of justice -- not knowing is no longer an option.

In light of the results data analysis has yielded on the baseball field, it is troubling that we are not applying it to one of the greatest challenges we face as a society. Technology could help us leverage data to identify offenders who will pose unacceptable risks to society if they are not behind bars and distinguish them from those defendants who will have lower recidivism rates if they are supervised in the community or given alternatives to incarceration before trial. Likewise, it could help us figure out which terms of imprisonment, alternatives to incarceration, and other interventions work best--and for whom. And the list does not end there.

The truth is our criminal justice system already makes these decisions every day. But it makes them without knowing whether they're the right ones. That needs to change. If data is powerful enough to transform baseball, health care, and education, it can do the same for criminal justice.