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New data dashboard will provide comprehensive look at criminal justice in La Plata County

Project provides a tool to dissect numbers behind racial and ethnic disparities
Christian Champagne, La Plata County district attorney, explores the new data dashboard that is expected to launch publicly the second week of September. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

The criminal justice system could be considered a mirror that reflects what is going on in a community or society. But without hard numbers, it can be difficult to parse where a jurisdiction succeeds at doling out justice equally and where it fails.

Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne said he is excited about a new tool the District Attorney’s Office is implementing because it provides a comprehensive look at myriad stats and demographics about people in the criminal justice system.

The District Attorney’s Office is launching a data dashboard on its website in early September that will be open to the public, Champagne said. The dashboard contains metrics under several realms of topics, including but not limited to referrals, case resolution and sentencing data, which are sorted by felony and misdemeanor crimes, recidivism, race/ethnicity and other variables.

The data dashboard was designed by a team at Loyola University Chicago with the aim of extracting criminal justice data from court records and sorting it by performance indicators, such as incarceration and recidivism rates, into a digestible format, he said.

The District Attorney’s Office is partnering with the Chicago team and a group called Colorado Lab Innovation to test pilot the data dashboard along with eight other prosecutors’ offices across the state of Colorado. After the pilot phase is complete, the plan is to distribute the data dashboard tool to district attorney’s offices across the state, he said.

Champagne said some historic and modern data are not flattering because they reveal racial disparities between minority groups and white criminal offenders. But he said the data, which reflects local criminal justice statistics in more detail than has ever previously been accessible at the local level, is necessary to understand where disparities lie and how they can be addressed.

“This is the first time we have been able to get hyperlocal with the data and analysis approach,” he said. “This is us. This is our office. This is what is happening here in our community. This is not Denver or New York City or LA or Philadelphia.”

Champagne said it is hard to apply lessons from state and national studies to La Plata County, but the new data dashboard will give prosecutors and the community at large relevant information to analyze, recognize and reflect upon.

He said Native American defendants are pleading guilty to lower-level charges at higher rates than white defendants – a trend that has been going on for five consecutive years. But Hispanic defendants are pleading guilty to lower-level charges at lower rates than white defendants.

On the flip side, Native American defendants are generally being incarcerated at higher rates than white defendants, and it is the same for Hispanic defendants as well.

“What it’s reflecting to me is that Native Americans or Hispanics are committing crimes at a higher rate than their population percentage by census,” he said. “Why is that happening?”

Champagne said looking at case outcomes on an individual case-by-case basis shows people are being arrested, prosecuted and sentenced because there was a crime that was committed. But the trends revealed by the hard data cause Champagne to ask what is causing those trends in La Plata County.

“Is it a question about education? Is it a question about housing? Is it a question about jobs?” he said. “Is it a question about wealth and socio-economic differences? What causes someone to become criminal justice-involved?

“That’s where I think this data is powerful for us not only as a prosecutor’s office, but it’s powerful for us as a community. It’s going to bring up questions about why are these things happening.”

Champagne said the data dashboard raises more questions than answers. But the ability to take a hard look at the statistical facts behind who is being prosecuted at higher rates and other circumstances is the first step to addressing inequities in criminal justice.

“We have work to do,” he said. “As long as there is racism in America there is going to be racism in the criminal justice system. And that is what numbers show, is that there is racism and ethnic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But it also shows that it is a societal problem.”

Assistant District Attorney Sean Murray said the goal is to address explicit bias and also implicit bias.

“We’re striking a balance between making our community safe and working with our law enforcement partners, but also holding our law enforcement partners accountable and striving to make sure we are doing things in a way that treats everybody fairly,” he said. “That balance is critical.”

Champagne and Murray stressed the importance of data-driven, evidence-based decision-making.

“Not just what do we think, what are our intuitions about justice, but looking at the data and implementing data into our daily decisions,” Murray said.

Champagne said he hopes the community will “dig into” the data alongside the District Attorney’s Office once the data dashboard goes live in early September.

“It can be a jumping off point for discussions about how we approach criminal justice as a whole, and other things,” Champagne said.

“I think we’re a mirror for the community. And I’m hopeful that the community will use this tool to reflect on how we all interact with each other.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story misstated Assistant District Attorney Sean Murray’s job title.

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