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Google and Mark Zuckerberg’s Initiative Are Backing a New Way to Measure Criminal Justice

The U.S. criminal justice system is huge: there are more than 3,000 counties and many more local municipalities, each with their own local law enforcement agencies, courts and prisoners. But despite the federal government’s efforts to collect data on many aspects of modern life, the criminal justice system is an area where that has not happened.

Each agency typically keeps their own records and their data stays local. That means it can be difficult — or often impossible — to answer basic questions such as how many people are shot by police each year, how many people plead guilty or how many people return to prison after being released.

But nonprofit Measures for Justice wants to change that. The group launched a new data portal this week that aims to help people understand what life is like in the nation’s criminal justice system by gathering data from every county across the country.

The tool launched on Tuesday, and already has support from Google and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Google gave Measures for Justice $1.5 million back in February as part of the company’s commitment to groups fighting racial inequality, and this week, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a $6.5 million donation to help the nonprofit expand into California and other states.

The Measures for Justice team collects numbers from courts, prosecutors’ offices, public defenders, probation departments and sheriffs, then cleans the data, organizes it and presents it for free in a way that is easy to access and understand. They also analyze the data around a set of 32 “core measures” that can help determine how well local systems function.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Gathering all this data is extremely time consuming, and the fragmented nature of the country’s justice systems means Measures for Justice staffers often have to travel in person to request public records from local agencies.

So far, the data tool only allows users to compare data from six states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Utah and Washington. And not all states collect data around the 32 questions the group wants to answer.

But the group, which has the motto “you can’t change what you can’t see,” is hopeful that it will get more counties to be a part of the project as it continues. With the help of funders like Google and Zuckerberg, the nonprofit hopes to gather data in 20 states by 2020.

“We’re giving people data they’ve never had access to before,” Amy Bach, the founder and executive director of Measures for Justice told The Marshall Project. “We’re telling them stories about their communities and their counties that they’ve never heard before.”