Photo credit: Kevin Hume/San Francisco Examiner

We Can’t Fight Crime With Spaghetti Bowl of Data

By Joel Engardio

Justice reform is necessary. To make it happen, residents must feel safe. But that requires transparent and accessible crime data residents can trust. San Francisco doesn’t have this because City Hall fumbled the creation of the Justice Tracking Information System. After two decades in the making and tens of millions of dollars, it still doesn’t properly function.

Good data would help residents understand what is really happening in our district attorney’s office, the police department, and the courts.

Lessons From Chicago: Good Data Matters
Transparent and accessible crime data that residents can trust is the key piece missing in San Francisco’s debate over crime rates and the best pathway to reform.

Maybe we can learn from Chicago, where Kim Foxx is a progressive district attorney. She determines which crimes get prosecuted — and she knows that transparency is what will build credibility and support for her justice reform policies. That’s why Foxx provides her constituents an online data dashboard. It lets residents see what’s happening with thousands of cases, from initial charge through final sentencing. Click here to check it out.

Why don’t we have anything as comprehensive as this in San Francisco? Our district attorney’s office has a dashboard called “DA Stat” that can’t compare to what Chicago has.

San Francisco’s DA Stat doesn’t tell you what happens to cases beyond the initial filing of charges. The public deserves to see sentencing information and final disposition — because it’s the outcome of a case that matters.

An open, disciplined tracking of cases from start to end should be a requirement for every district attorney’s office. Without it, people on both sides of the crime debate have to rely on emotional anecdotes instead of data on actual outcomes.

San Francisco lacks accessible data because City Hall fumbled the creation of the Justice Tracking Information System. After two decades in the making, it still doesn’t fully function. We sit at the center of Silicon Valley and tech advancement, yet City Hall’s attempt at public safety data sharing has been a debacle. Read about it below.

Easy, online access to historical data would be useful for answering questions like: How many people released before trial commit a new crime?

Safety and justice should go together. Residents must feel confident that public officials are doing their job to keep everyone safe. That starts with asking officials to put all crime data in the open.

If you agree that we need more transparency, add your name. Tell San Francisco officials we demand better crime data.

The following article was originally published in the San Francisco Examiner in 2019.

We Can’t Fight Crime With Spaghetti Bowl of Data

By Joel Engardio

When police arrested 63 people over six days for selling heroin and meth on San Francisco’s streets last October, most of the suspected drug dealers — 80 percent — were free within a week.

They made bail, got probation, were released on their own recognizance or had their case dismissed by a judge. Some of them were already on probation, caught and let go multiple times.

When defendants are re-arrested while awaiting a court appearance, it is important for Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to know. Yet she often does not because San Francisco lacks a fully interconnected criminal justice computer database that allows every agency to share information in real time.

“How many people out on bail or pre-trial have come back on a new crime? How many were sentenced or released on a probation revocation? I can’t put those data points together without a lot of work,” Hennessy said. “We have to manually figure it out.”

Hennessy has two deputy sheriffs assigned to tracking down and reviewing case instructions from the court, which are issued on paper.

“The court has been working to upgrade its computer system for a decade and the clerk is still unable to enter information in real time,” Hennessy said.

Yet Hennessy said she is hopeful things will get better now that the Justice Tracking Information System (JUSTIS) is getting more attention. First conceived in 1997, JUSTIS was supposed to support and manage the public safety data sharing and reporting needs of the police, sheriff, district attorney, public defender, probation department and courts.

More than 20 years and tens of millions of dollars later, parts of the system have been built but it’s far from complete.

Hennessy’s renewed optimism comes from City Hall’s decision last year to hire Gartner, an IT consulting firm, to help JUSTIS realize its full potential. A “five-year roadmap” is expected to be unveiled soon.

“I approve of this path,” Hennessy said. “We need to commit to the next step because we’re way behind other cities and counties.”

“Orphan Child”
The long-delayed JUSTIS system was making headlines as long ago as 2003. Domestic violence activists said the murder of Claire Joyce Tempongko might have been prevented if criminal justice agencies had known her ex-boyfriend previously served jail time for attacking her when she tried to have him arrested again after two more alleged assaults.

A decade into the creation of JUSTIS, only the sheriff’s department was plugged into it and a 2009 budget analyst’s report was damning. City Hall had spent $25 million for an unfinished system that was more than 10 years late and 40 percent over budget.

Another decade went by and San Francisco’s property crime rate had become one of the highest in the nation. Residents demanded better public safety and Supervisor Norman Yee called a hearing in 2017 to find out what happened to JUSTIS.

It had become an “orphan child,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. A skeleton staff could barely maintain what had already been built. There was a working JUSTIS hub for agencies to use, and in some cases, it offered real time information. But in other instances, data could only flow in one direction and took 24 hours to refresh.

At the 2017 hearing, the police department testified that it was still processing some citations on paper.

Turning Point
Yee’s hearing put a renewed focus on JUSTIS. It was a turning point because City Hall had just hired Linda Gerull in the dual role of chief information officer and director of the Department of Technology. Now Gerull oversees JUSTIS. Sheriff Hennessy is a fan.

“Linda is really good at what she does,” Hennessy said. “She brings the energy, skill set and experience we need.”

Hennessy and Gerull said an important step is figuring out the governance of JUSTIS. The sheriff, district attorney and public defender are elected officials who act as their own bosses and run independent agencies with different agendas.

“We’re operating in silos and duplicating a lot of resources,” Hennessy said. “If the police and sheriff both need an incident report system, it makes sense to coordinate buying one integrated system instead of two different versions.”

For JUSTIS to succeed, stakeholders must collaborate.

“Each department can’t just do what it wants and not consider the whole,” Gerull said. “Otherwise you end up with technology that looks like a bowl of spaghetti.”

Today, the police department no longer processes citations on paper. Last month, it completed the deployment of the e-Citations system. Now officers use a smart phone application. But Gerull noted the e-Citation data is not yet visible in JUSTIS.

JUSTIS Czar
Hennessy said the mayor should appoint a trusted criminal justice expert to coordinate the actions of all public safety agencies. This person would work with Gerull to get the technology right while ensuring appropriate investment and infrastructure.

“We need a qualified and credible person in the world of public safety to be a champion of JUSTIS and look at the criminal justice system collectively,” Hennessy said. “We don’t have that now.”

A previous attempt at a JUSTIS czar, however, failed. In 2003, there was a Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice that oversaw JUSTIS. It hired a consultant and a master plan was developed. But it had four directors in as many years with high staff turnover.

How do we make sure this year’s Gartner “roadmap” doesn’t suffer the same fate as the 2003 master plan? Perhaps it’s time for San Francisco’s civil grand jury to investigate the past 22 years of JUSTIS and produce a report that outlines all the pitfalls to avoid. It would add a layer of transparency and accountability JUSTIS hasn’t had before.

JUSTIS Evolution
When JUSTIS was imagined in 1997, no one thought to include social justice agencies. But they need access to address the nexus of crime, homelessness and mental illness in 2019 San Francisco. Adding more stakeholders to the database only makes its successful evolution more complicated — and essential.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Gerull said. “We need a governance and business plan to deliver on the promise of what an integrated JUSTIS platform should look like today. And that’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner January 20, 2019. Joel Engardio is the executive director of Stop Crime SF.

Originally published at https://engardio.com on August 23, 2021.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues