Humphrey Obuobi
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March 30, 2021

Enhancing data transparency with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Today marks a significant milestone for transparency in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) has partnered with Recidiviz to launch the Spotlight Public Dashboard — a tool that provides everyone (including policymakers, advocacy groups, journalists, and researchers) with real-time visibility into statistics like the prison and parole populations, reasons for incarceration, and parole success rates. The dashboard’s intuitive data visualizations will help stakeholders across the entire system find common ground and collaborate on a path forward to improve outcomes for those in the justice system.

What is Spotlight?

Transparency is essential to reforming our criminal justice system, and our Spotlight dashboards are designed with the fundamental belief that data is more than just numbers. Data tells a story, and stories about people must be told with care. To that end, we built Spotlight with a few key principles in mind:

  • Present narratives. Spotlight’s “data narratives” move beyond just graphs to tell a story about different aspects of the corrections system, and provide an entry point for dialogue about reform.
  • Support equal access. Spotlight is mobile friendly so that everyone can access this information from anywhere.
  • Provide context. We always provide our methodologies and definitions of key terms so that the data may be understood within its proper context.
  • Stay fresh. Stale data isn’t that helpful. That’s why our dashboards automatically update on a regular basis.

Proof Point in North Dakota

Our first Spotlight launched in North Dakota in August 2020 to help the public better understand the nuances and challenges in criminal justice, as well as the state’s successes, including the Free Through Recovery program which has helped thousands of justice-involved individuals receive the treatment they need to be successful upon returning to their communities.

Since then, the response to North Dakota’s dashboard has been overwhelmingly positive across the political spectrum. Dane DeKrey, the ACLU Advocacy Director in North Dakota, pointed out that North Dakota’s decision to share data — especially on racial disparities — sets it apart from most other states.

North Dakota’s dashboard features the disparities in outcomes for Native Americans in community supervision compared to the general population.

Enter Pennsylvania

Even before today’s launch, Pennsylvania was known by corrections leaders and external researchers as a leader in data transparency. Bret Bucklen, the PADOC Research Director, has led their research and analytics team to create one of the most data-forward DOCs in the country by releasing monthly reports on corrections and supervision statistics, original research, and other analysis and publications.

Bret and other members of the leadership team in Pennsylvania recognized the value of Spotlight to communicate their data more intuitively. Over the past few months, we worked together to construct real-time data narratives that illustrate various aspects of the state’s corrections system, including racial disparities in prison and parole.

Secretary Wetzel is a strong proponent of this partnership and also views it as a tool to demonstrate progress over time. For example, the Spotlight dashboard demonstrates the effects of actions the Department has taken to reduce disparities, including a series of legislative initiatives that are creating a more equitable justice system. Specifically, under Governor Wolf’s leadership, Pennsylvania has enacted a new Clean Slate law, fought against the reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentences, and implemented two Justice Reinvestment initiatives. Today, the Black proportion of Pennsylvania’s incarcerated population is at its lowest level since 2010 — but there is still much work to do.

Pennsylvania’s Spotlight dashboard highlights the overrepresentation of Black individuals incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

A More Transparent Future

At Recidiviz, we’re only just beginning our work to encourage transparency and collaboration within the criminal justice system, and we hope that Pennsylvania’s step today is one that we hope every state will take. Expanding transparency is the first step in building new, innovative solutions that safely and sustainably reduce incarceration across the country.

If you’re interested in our work on Spotlight, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@recidiviz.org.

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