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What we don't know we don't know about criminal justice

Modern America measures everything. The internet is full of examples of pointless and trivial "top ten lists." People are fascinating with measuring and comparing the silliest things. But some things that you would expect to be closely tracked and measured are not. When it comes to criminal justice system, there are a great many things that we do not know.

For instance, an article in The Atlantic notes we do not know how many people are killed by the police every year. There are guesses and estimates, but there are not comprehensive compilations from every state in the union. The Department of Justice collects many statistics related to crime, police, courts and prisons, but not that one.

And this is a problem, as you cannot begin to determine if there is a problem, if police are employing excessive deadly force, if you cannot even determine how many people die during altercations with the police.

It is not surprising that this data is not collected, as most police departments would prefer such information remain vague and amorphous, as it makes any reports of civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement seem like odd, exceptional occurrences, as opposed to a pattern and practice of behavior.

When those statistics are put together and they lose their seeming randomness, disturbing patterns can emerge. For instance, in Utah, the second leading cause of homicide was being killed by police. Domestic violence was the leading cause of homicide during the period.

Only one officer was charged, and those charges were later dismissed. Given Utah's small size, with an estimated population of 2.9 million, which is about the size of Chicago and much smaller than Cook County, it may be anomalous, but without knowing the statistics of all other states, we cannot determine if this is good or bad. (cont.)

Source: theatlantic.com, "The Missing Statistics of Criminal Justice," Matt Ford, May 31, 2015

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