top of page
  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Time to consider data-driven justice system?

Big data is a big deal to more and more industries and professions.

Financial firms have crunched reams of numbers for decades. Barak Obama dedicated a whole floor of his campaign to data-driven decision-making. And of course, baseball — and every other major sport — has followed the sabermetric path blazed by Billy Beane.

So, where do we find big data being applied to the legal field? How does the criminal justice system use the vast array of statistical information it collects to increase efficiency and decrease costs?

Surprisingly, it seems the legal field has been relatively immune to the transformations taking place in other sectors. Of course, there are some practice areas such as insurance litigation that are notorious for cost-benefit analyses, and there are plenty of academic, social science studies analyzing courts. But use of data-driven analytical tools for decision-making continues to play only a bit part in our country’s legal system. However, with the help of some zealous advocates, that may be changing.

When I went poking around on this topic, I came across a TED Talk by Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey attorney general. She applied big data to crime-fighting decisions made in her office and believes that helped remove Camden, N.J., from atop the list of most violent cities in America. In fact, Milgram believes in the process so strongly she works through the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to urge more jurisdictions to adopt similar changes.

At this time, the primary change being promoted by the foundation is reform to the pretrial process. It’s a small start for big data in the legal world, but an important one.

The costs to the criminal justice system, and to the people caught up in it, are often front-loaded. The costs range from paying for people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial to costs incurred directly by defendants who might lose jobs or homes while sitting in jail. Conversely, society pays an even greater cost when an offender likely to commit a violent crime is prematurely released onto the streets. And all those costs must be balanced by a judge making a quick decision, based on relatively minimal information and the judge’s gut instinct.

Too often, that limited information has kept people who are unlikely to commit another violent crime in jail while freeing those who present a clear danger to our neighborhoods.

To assist judges, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation developed a data-driven tool that applies a few key factors, compares them against a data set with more than 1.5 million data points, and provides a recommendation for release or retention. Of course, the final decision is left to the judge. Nobody is advocating diminished judicial discretion, the tool is only an aid for judges making those important decisions.

To date, the tool has been adopted in more than 20 jurisdictions including the State of Kentucky and Cook County, Ill. For the pretrial process in this country, that’s a good start. For big data in the legal system, we can hope it’s only the very beginning.

For more information about the data-driven decision-making tools being developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, visit

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and legal scholar at the Denver law firm of Hackstaff & Snow LLC.

1 view0 comments


bottom of page