Beyond the Jailhouse Cell: How Data Can Inform Fairer Justice Policies

Government-provided open data is a value-added approach to providing transparency, analytic insights for government efficiency, innovative solutions for products and services, and increased civic participation. Two of the least transparent public institutions are jails and prisons. The majority of population has limited knowledge about jail and prison operations and the demographics of the jail and prison population, even though the costs of incarceration are substantial. The absence of public knowledge about one of the many establishments public tax dollars support can be resolved with an open data approach to criminal justice. Increasing access to administrative jail information enables communities to collectively and effectively find solutions to the challenges the system faces.

Across the nation, the conversation about criminal justice reform and open data has changed its tone. People are demanding to see statistics from local and national law enforcement agencies that can provide hard evidence to the narratives of injustice. As criminal justice reform is taking place in the policy making sphere, it is imperative that the public also has access to information on who occupies the jails that surround their community. While open data is not the cure to social ills, it is a tangible means to inform citizens on specific issues and better policy practices.

Wayne County operates the largest jail system in the State of Michigan, comprised of three jails: the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility, the Old Wayne County Jail, and the William Dickerson Detention Facility. Each of the facilities house an assortment of detainees, ranging from pretrial and sentenced felons, civil Friend of the Court violators, misdemeanants, and ordinance violators, to U.S. Marshal detainees of varied gender, race, and age. Though the website indicates the three facilities have an average daily population of 2,600 people, there is no public means to verify that number, nor is there a way to tell how frequently the website is updated to reflect any changes. The average daily population, demographics of the jail population, and the crimes that have been committed are all valuable sources of information for the public.

Multiple cities have displayed these data, and serve as examples for Wayne County. Miami-Dade County, FL publishes jail population statistics daily, displaying inmates by gender, age, primary offense, charge status, length of stay, and more. Louisville, KY created a Jail Population Management Dashboard. Both data platforms were built to help judges and other stakeholders understand the conditions of the local jails, and use the data to inform sentencing, facility and inmate outcomes, reduce overcrowding, and increase the use of alternative sentencing programs. Publishing Wayne County’s jail information can lead to the same outcomes.

The data analysis that compliments open data practices is a part of the formula for creating transformational policies. There are numerous ways that recording and publishing data about jail operations can inform better policies and practices:

1. Better budgeting and allocation of funds. By monitoring the rate at which dollars are expended for a specific function, data allows for administrations to ensure accurate estimates of future expenditures.

2. More effective deployment of staff. Knowing the average daily population and annual average bookings can help inform staffing decisions to determine a total need of officers, shift responsibilities, and room arrangements. The population information also helps with facility planning, reducing overcrowding, controlling violence within the facility, staffing, determining appropriate programs and services, and policy and procedure development.

3. Program participation and effectiveness. Gauging the amount of inmates involved in jail work programs, educational training services, rehabilitation/detox programs, and the like is critical to evaluating methods to improve and expand such services. Quantifying participation and effectiveness of these programs can potentially lead to a shift in jail rehabilitating services.

4. Jail suicides. “The rate of jail suicides is about three times the rate of prison suicides.” Jails are isolating spaces that separate inmates from social support networks, diminish personal control, and often lack mental health resources. Most people in jail face minor charges and spend less time incarcerated due to shorter sentences. Reviewing the previous jail suicide statistics aids in pinpointing suicide risk, identifying high-risk groups, and ultimately, prescribing intervention procedures and best practices to end jail suicides.

5. Gender and race inequities. It is well known that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated, and the number of Black women in jails and prisons has rapidly increased . It is important to view this disparity as it reflects to the demographics of the total population of an area. Providing data that show trends in particular crimes committed by race and gender data might lead to further analysis and policy changes in the root causes of these crimes (poverty, employment, education, housing, etc.).

6. Prior interaction with the juvenile justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline describes the systematic school discipline policies that increase a student’s interaction with the juvenile justice system. Knowing how many incarcerated persons that have been suspended, expelled, or incarcerated as a juvenile can encourage schools to examine their discipline policies and institute more restorative justice programs for students. It would also encourage transitional programs for formerly incarcerated youth in order to decrease recidivism rate among young people.

7. Sentencing reforms. Evaluating the charges on which a person is arrested, the length of stay, average length of sentences, charges for which sentences are given, and the length of time from the first appearance to arraignment and trial disposition can inform more just and balanced sentencing laws enforced by the judicial branch.

Ultimately, collecting and releasing data about Wayne County’s jail population, budget expenses, and program evaluations would increase transparency and allow community members to participate in the conversation about managing our jail system. As conversations around jail and policing continue to evolve, not only in Wayne County but also across the country, making jail data publicly accessible can help ensure that academics, data analysts, lawyers, community groups, and residents can be informed advocates for good justice practices.


“Jail Division.” Wayne County Sheriff. Web. 23 July 2015.
Balko, Radley. “A Primer on Jailhouse Suicides.” The Washington Post. 17 July 2015. Web. 22 July 2015.
“Basics and Beyond: Suicide Prevention in Jails.” U.S. Marshals Service. 24 July 2015. PDF.
“Incarcerated Women.” The Sentencing Project. 24 July 2015. PDF.