The Justice Index
better courts | better outcomes
The Big Picture
The Justice Index is, essentially, a warehouse of data on the lower criminal courts that has been organized to show how well or poorly the courts are providing basic legal services. The Index is an early warning system whose operating logic is this: good data, in aggregate, can help us see the big picture. Instead of catching a problem here, a problem there, data gathered in a particular way and on a particular topic can expose a pattern of abuse that comprises those problems, but extends beyond them. Why does this matter? Because a pattern is considerably easier to take seriously, address, and fix, than an oversight on Monday, a fluke on Tuesday. The Index’s goal, then, is to red flag conduct that’s been institutionalized for lack of anyone being able to rise up to say: 1) This problem is widespread, and 2) This is not right.
Anyone is the key word here. Anyone should be able to call out the justice system on its deficiencies, which is why the Index is designed not just for legal professionals, but for local citizens—so they know they are not alone with their grievances; so they can contextualize their experience in court and be part of the solution.
The Justice Index will do for the average American what the infant mortality rate can do for children in impoverished countries: diagnose where the situation is most dire, and, more importantly, galvanize an effort to help.
The Justice Index is designed to measure and improve the nation’s criminal courts in the following three areas:
- Public safety: A court system that works allows people to feel safe at home, in public, and in correctional facilities.
- Fairness and accuracy: The courts’ ideal is to preserve individual liberties by making sure the right people have been convicted and that wrongful convictions are avoided.
- Fiscal responsibility: Cost efficiency in the courts ensures that state governments, defendants, and tax payers, do not foot the bill unnecessarily.
The Index will establish measurable indicators of how well or poorly the courts are performing in each area, and from these begin to see which counties are doing better than others.
For instance, a good indicator that a court is not meting out justice, and thus failing to uphold standards of fairness and accuracy, might be a data set on how many defendants plead guilty without a lawyer in any given month or year. The Index will flag counties whose numbers indicate a problem.
Our goal is to pilot the Index with two courts in 2012, and ultimately engage with fifty county courts within the following four years.
How This Will Help the Courts and Local Communities
Once the numbers are out, MFJ will develop scorecards for each county, and then rank these counties accordingly. Low-ranking counties will now have incentive to improve. They will have the ammunition they need to lobby for more funding and to defend against budgetary cuts. On the flip side, high-ranking courts will be encouraged to share their know-how via a peer-to-peer program with courts that underperform. The result? Competition, innovation, collaboration.
The Index will also help professional/advocacy groups and academics invested in the implementation or study of reform by providing them with much-needed data—data available on this website and written up so that anyone can understand what it means. Anyone—the media, donors, citizens—can kickstart court reform with the right information.
History of the Justice Index
MFJ Founder and Executive Director Amy Bach spent eight years researching for her book, Ordinary Injustice. In the process, Amy developed a list of “red flags” that indicated underlying systemic problems in the courts she visited.
Based on these “flags,” Amy and a team of experts in measurement developed the set of performance indicators that would become a first draft of the Justice Index.
Since then, the Index has evolved, and will continue to evolve based on the unique needs of each county court system.