fb-pixel
OPINION

Massachusetts criminal legal system needs to get serious about data

You cannot fix what you do not measure.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who died this week, holds his gavel. Gants commissioned a Harvard Law study on racial disparities in the Commonwealth's criminal system.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who died this week, holds his gavel. Gants commissioned a Harvard Law study on racial disparities in the Commonwealth's criminal system.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Last week, Harvard Law School issued a long-awaited report on racial disparities in the state’s criminal legal system. After a four-year quest to unearth and analyze this data, the study definitively proves what so many people entangled in the system have been saying for a long time: The definition of justice in Massachusetts changes depending on the color of your skin. After controlling for all other factors, such as neighborhood and prior criminal history, the researchers found that Black and Latinx people accused of crimes are charged with greater severity, face more and longer mandatory minimum sentences, and are sentenced to significantly more jail and prison time than their white counterparts.

The heart-wrenching outcomes of these racial inequities are exacerbated and perpetuated by the lack of a coordinated effort to collect and share data that oversight agencies need to identify racial, ethnic, gender, and other biases. You cannot fix what you do not measure. The study’s authors go to great lengths to reveal that the Massachusetts criminal legal system has shrouded itself in darkness. Their findings show that the Commonwealth makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint when and where the law — and those who enforce it — are failing to provide equal treatment.

In the study, police departments would not or could not provide the researchers with aggregated arrest reports. The district attorneys either would not or could not share vital information, such as when they reduced charges or dropped cases. The Trial Court does not electronically track bail amounts or fines and other penalties, including probation, the most common sanction. They also don’t collect information on judges, to analyze sentencing disparities from courtroom to courtroom, courthouse to courthouse. Across agencies, case records lack a common identifier to track individuals through the system, and there are no unified standards for recording race and ethnicity consistently. The state still does not capture gender, and only records a person’s sex assigned at birth.

Advertisement



These data shortcomings hearken back to the 2012 drug lab scandal, in which the actions of former chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak prompted the dismissal of thousands of drug cases. The criminal legal system agencies had to scramble to produce paper documents to determine who was in prison on drug charges, and too frequently they could not find individuals whose cases had been impacted by misconduct. In 2018, when the Supreme Judicial Court extended the scope of relief in the Farak case to people who were still incarcerated, attorneys on both sides were unable to quickly identify who was eligible for release.

Advertisement



Criminal legal reform advocates, civil rights leaders, and legislators tried to compel the system to act. In 2018, they successfully advocated for extensive data reporting requirements in a landmark criminal justice reform bill, signed by Governor Baker that same year. It is now law that all police departments must release quarterly arrest reports, agencies must standardize electronic data collection and track individuals using a single common identifier, and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security must integrate records across agencies and provide de-identified race and other data for analysis.

Yet two years have passed since the law went into effect and none of this appears to be happening. The Suffolk County DA’s office still receives paper copies of documents, though our partner agencies store the same data electronically. Despite repeated requests to share data electronically, many of them continue to stonewall. On Thursday, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Suffolk Superior Court announced it will no longer accept e-filings and is discontinuing the use of its e-mail account. The state’s criminal legal system is going backward.

Advertisement



Massachusetts boasts some of the finest elite technological institutions in the world. For the state to continue to persist in outmoded data and technology practices for years while other jurisdictions and fields hurtle forward is an embarrassment to our progressive reputation.

We cannot reckon with the past without data to identify problems and measure the efficacy of our efforts to remedy them for the future. Ralph Gants, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, who died this week, showed bold leadership by stepping in and inviting Harvard Law School to gather this data and conduct this analysis. Governor Charlie Baker, the trial court, sheriffs, the attorney general, police, and district attorneys must now follow Justice Gants’s lead and commit to working collaboratively to implement the data provisions of the 2018 law without delay. Lives are at stake. We have to do better.

Rachael Rollins is Suffolk County district attorney. Byron Rushing and Juana Matias are former state representatives.