Descano Promises More Sunlight for Criminal Justice Data

Democracy thrives in sunlight

by James A. Bacon

Steve Descano, Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney, plans to begin publishing data on prosecutions as part of his campaign to root out alleged racial and socioeconomic disparities in the county’s criminal justice system, reports The Washington Post.

Data to be published online will cover such metrics as race, charging, sentences, bail decisions, and plea offers.

“You can’t fix what you don’t measure,” Descano said. “I’ve heard from a lot of members of our community they don’t know what goes on inside this building and they don’t feel comfortable that they are going to get a fair shake.”

This is a positive development. Open publication of the data is far preferable to the attorney general’s office compiling the data internally and selectively citing statistics that support a predetermined narrative. Anyone who values open, honest government should approve. In fact, Fairfax County might be setting a precedent that other Virginia localities should emulate.

I happen to think that the charges of systemic racism are wildly exaggerated. But by no means do I think the criminal justice was conceived in perfection. Our goal should always be to achieve equal justice before the law, and we should always be open to the possibility that certain practices are administered imperfectly or have unintended consequences. Under any political theory, the impartial administration of justice is the core function of any government. Accordingly, we should continually subject the criminal justice system to scrutiny with an idea that it might need reform.

That said, there are ample grounds to worry about where some people will go with this.

Arlington County’s commonwealth attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, is collecting data, too. She ran on a platform similar to Descano, which presupposed significant racism in the system. Indeed, with no discernible empirical backing, she has set a goal, says the Postof reducing “racial disparities in prosecution” by 20%. That sounds ominously like setting racial quotas on prosecutions, which would be the ultimate travesty of justice.

Descano, by contrast, has said he is pursuing a “holistic” approach to reducing disparities and has not set specific goals. I’m not sure what that means in practice, but it sounds far less arbitrary.

In either case, an honest reporting of the numbers will allow the public to engage in a productive discussion. Descano will provide citizens with the means to critique his conclusions. Transparency will benefit everyone.

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9 responses to “Descano Promises More Sunlight for Criminal Justice Data”

  1. Will it include past criminal records of recent arrestees – a very important metric.

  2. tmtfairfax Avatar

    This is both good and bad at the same time. Trying to identify and publish objective data is a good idea. It can lead to more public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system.

    At the same time, this process will involve gross simplifications and will mislead the public. For example, the United Nations recognizes 5000 ethnic groups. How will Fairfax County address them? What groups will be recognized? Which will be lumped together and on what basis? For example, there are vast cultural differences among Hispanics? Central Americans, South Americans, Spanish people from New Mexico, Iberians. Does lumping them together make sense?

    How does an attorney or police officer categorize the race or ethnicity of a person? By the color of one’s skin? The Caucasian race contains pale people from Northern Europe and very dark skinned people from the Indian Subcontinent as well as millions in-between. Will Fairfax County create its own definitions for race and ethnicity?

    And then there are the facts of each criminal case. No burglary or assault is the very same as the next one? No accused is the same as the next accused. These difference often lead to different results: innocence versus guilty; prison time versus non-prison sentences. I don’t have confidence that government can make sound, non-subjective decisions in these areas.

    So if the County presents this as a trial subject to refinement, it’s likely work worth doing so long as appropriate caveats are disclosed. Am I confident that this will happen? No.

  3. WayneS Avatar

    I’m adopting a wait-and-see approach to this one.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    The entire Commonwealth’s Attorney position is broken. No locally elected official should be able to effectively veto laws through non-prosecution like Descano has done. Or, at least, the process to recall a Commonwealth’s Attorney should be a lot easier.

    I don’t trust Steve Descano as far as I could throw him. I signed the recall petition against him – not because I though he’d get recalled but as a vote of no confidence in him.

    I agree with Jim that better data would be a good thing. However, Descano should give the raw data to neutral source and let that neutral source provide the reporting.

    I will predict that within 6 months there will be an article on this site (written by somebody other than me) decrying Descano’s misrepresentation of the data.

  5. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Still reading Kendi’s book and still wrestling with whether to write more about it. His basic argument seems to be that in any aspect of society where you can note disparate outcomes when sorted by “race”, that is all the proof you need of totally systemic racism and the only cure is to reverse the process. Change the outcome. Too many in prison? Set them free. Too many charged? Don’t charge them. Poorer performance on tests? End the tests. All dead white folks in your statues? Taking them down is easier than putting more up. On the issue of school admissions, well, you get the idea. And that, in a nutshell, is “being an anti-racist.”

    Reading this I am experiencing some clarity. But it is a hard slog. He writes like that woman from the Fairfax NAACP talks.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Does he really say “set them free”?

      I have not read his book but I note the investigation done by the Air Force where they found disparate outcomes by race and dug deeper and found racial disparities in promotions as well as discipline.

      From that – they concluded, they needed to look at how their policies and procedures functioned.

      I don’t call that “racism”.

      If the outcomes ARE disparate , are we NOT going to consider policies and procedures and instead assume the other possibility that achievement and criminal behavior are endemic to race or culture and not disparate treatment?

      So can’t quite understand if disparate outcomes are identified – that it is “racist” to do that?

      It’s funny to me ,we also went through this with gender with women… disparate outcomes WERE identified AND further investigations determined that policies and procedures were ALSO disparate but we did not call it a type of “ism” that demanded that women be accorded equal treatment even if they were not really “equal”.

      Yep, some men still say this, not as many out loud anymore but still in their heart of hearts.

      We seem to be going through a similar process with race..

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Someday you can explain why The Dominican Republic is so much more successful than Haiti. Two former colonies of European powers sharing two sides of the same island. One is a developing country and the other is mired in the third world.

        1. Stephen Haner Avatar
          Stephen Haner

          Racism! Oh, wait….

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          Isn’t the Dominican Republic the EXCEPTION rather than the rule for most 3rd world countries like Venezuela, Panama, etc?

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