Opinion: Michigan has a chance to modernize state court data transparency

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget includes funding for the Michigan Supreme Court’s (MSC) Statewide Court Data Transparency Project to develop an integrated data collection system for all state courts across Michigan’s 83 counties.

While that may not seem like breaking news, it does break new ground. The court is the first actor in the criminal legal system to use comprehensive, consistent data collection to evaluate policies, identify and address racial inequities and drive systemic improvements. In 2021, then-Chief Justice Bridget McCormack laid out the court’s argument for data integrity in an opinion piece in which she noted, “Anecdotes don’t drive systemic improvements. Data does.”

MaryAnn Sarosi
MaryAnn Sarosi
Desirae Simmons
Desirae Simmons

McCormack explained further, “Michigan’s decentralized court system with different funding units, using different technology, and with different resources means we don’t have the comprehensive data needed to evaluate our policies. This piecemeal approach isn’t only a problem for our criminal justice policy, but also for juvenile, child welfare and civil justice policy too.” She went on to write, “Data can also be marshaled to help us identify and address racial inequities in our juvenile and criminal legal systems.”

That last point drew the attention of our group ― Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw (CREW). Five months before McCormack’s piece, CREW published a first-of-its-kind analysis of more than a thousand felony cases from the Washtenaw Trial Court’s website, finding patterns of disparities in charging decisions by prosecutors and sentencing by judges.

More:Racism in the criminal justice system requires our attention | Editorial

More:Data was key to understanding racial disparities in this county's court system

But the limited amount of public facing data left us with more questions and a call for a deeper, objective analysis of data across the entire criminal legal system, including the court. In that 2021 piece, the chief justice recognized the role the courts should play in using data to ensure equal justice under law when she wrote, “While I applaud citizen groups like CREW for stepping into this void, transparency in government demands more from us — the courts. That’s why the State Court Administrative Office (the MSC’s administrative arm) … is using data to understand where racial disparities exist through a unique collaboration with academic partners and the Michigan Department of Corrections."

The administrative office’s data collection and analysis that Whitmer is asking the Legislature to fund isn’t sexy, but it’s critical. So critical, in fact, that it’s embedded in the the state supreme court's first-ever strategic plan for Michigan’s judicial system, Planning for the Future of the Michigan Judicial System. Three of the five strategic goals — court funding and technology infrastructure, racial and social equity and public trust and understanding, go directly to issues of data collection, analysis, accountability and transparency. Those themes were also echoed in the statement made by Chief Justice Beth Clement (a key member of the team that created the the state supreme court's strategic plan), upon her unanimous selection as the new Chief Justice. CREW commends the state supreme court and the administrative office’s leadership in taking on the work that lay before them because their data collection effort is only the beginning. There are three things CREW will be watching for as the the court's Data Transparency Project unfolds:

  • What will the administrative office do with the data? Who will decide what data will be analyzed? (We hope the office includes meaningful input from users of the legal system beyond judges and court staff.) Will the data be analyzed for simple case processing details such as how long cases take from start to finish or questions related to deeper inequities? (In CREW’s report, we listed more than two dozen data analyses that the courts and prosecutors could do to understand whether equal justice under law is being carried out.) Who will see the data? Court personnel? The public? If the data reveals racial disparities in a judge’s decisions, what will the court do? There is no judicial canon specifically addressing a pattern and practice of racially disparate treatment, so it is uncertain whether the Judicial Tenure Commission has oversight capabilities.

  • Public release of the data analysis collaboration mentioned by McCormack between the administrative office, MDOC and academic partners (such as University of Michigan’s Criminal Justice Administrative Records System) which has been underway for more than two years.

  • When will other taxpayer-funded government units involved in the criminal legal system follow the court’s lead and use data to ensure equity, accountability, transparency and effectiveness? The MDOC, for example, holds a trove of criminal legal data that could inform policymakers and the public on almost every stage of the criminal legal process from pre-sentence to reentry.

Is Michigan destined to be last in the pack when it comes to integrating data across the entire criminal legal system? A generation ago, a handful of jurisdictions around the country were on the cutting edge of improving government efficiency when they integrated data from different departments and used that data to address inequities, measure outcomes, develop policy, and increase efficiency across an entire system. Since then, technological developments have made data integration much more accessible.

If we really want government to be transparent, operate efficiently, maintain public safety, and address racial disparities, why aren’t we doing that in Michigan?

MaryAnn Sarosi and Desiraé Simmons are both members of Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Mich. has a chance to modernize state court data transparency