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August 1, 2014

AG Says Big Data Can Reform Sentencing Rules

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder detailed a “Smart on Crime” initiative during an August 1 speech to a group of criminal defense attorneys that includes a “data-driven reforms” designed to fix the nation’s sentencing guidelines and relieve prison overcrowding.

Speaking August 1 in Philadelphia to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Holder asserted that the “big data movement has immense potential to make the corrections process more effective and efficient when it comes to reducing recidivism rates.”

“We’ve seen an explosion in the practice of using aggregate data to observe trends and anticipate outcomes,” Holder added. “This increased reliance on empirical data has the potential to transform entire industries – and, in the process, countless lives – depending on how this data is harnessed and put to use.”

Earlier this week, Holder asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentencing guidelines for the federal courts, to “study the use of data-driven analysis in front-end sentencing,” then issue policy recommendations.

At the state level, Holder noted that “data-driven reforms” are helping to reduce prison populations. The attorney general also cited a data management tool launched by the New York City Police Department called Compstat used to gather data that can help improve allocation of costly police resources. The tool has been adopted by other police departments across the country, Holder noted.

The Justice Department is also looking for ways to leverage big data as part of risk assessments used by parole boards to identify candidates for early release from the nation’s overcrowded prisons.

“Data can also help design paths for federal inmates to lower these risk assessments, and earn their way towards a reduced sentence, based on participation in programs that research shows can dramatically improve the odds of successful reentry. Such evidence-based strategies show promise in allowing us to more effectively reduce recidivism,” Holder asserted.

The Justice Department is among several federal agencies embracing big data analytics as a decision-making and resource management tool. For example, the Commerce Department recently hired a chief data officer to oversee efforts to make agency data more accessible.

Generally, the Obama administration has been promoting big data as a new engine of U.S. economic growth. It has also launched big data efforts in connection with the Affordable Care Act and other scientific research and IT efforts.

Privacy and other concerns have been raised about these efforts, and Holder stressed in his speech to defense lawyers that standards are needed on how data is handled.

“It’s increasingly clear that, in the context of directing law enforcement resources and improving reentry programs, intensive analysis and data-driven solutions can help us achieve significant successes while reducing costs,” Holder said. “But particularly when it comes to front-end applications – such as sentencing decisions, where a handful of states are now attempting to employ this methodology – we need to be sure the use of aggregate data analysis won’t have unintended consequences.”

Related items:

Commerce Department to Hire Data Czar

Big Data Backlash: Medical Database Raises Privacy Concerns