Making the criminal justice system transparent: Preliminary analysis of Berkshire County CourtWatch data

Copyright 2019, all rights reserved.

CITATION

Nicholas Goldrosen, Chad M. Topaz. Making the criminal justice system transparent: Preliminary analysis of Berkshire Country CourtWatch data. Research brief #1, Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, available at http://qsideinstitute.org/2019/12/02/courtwatch-preliminary (2019).

Criminal Justice in Berkshire County, Massachusetts

When Andrea Harrington was elected Berkshire County District Attorney (DA) in November 2018, one of her major campaign promises, and indeed, one of her first steps in office, was to reduce the imposition of cash bail on defendants during pre-trial bail hearings. This promise took shape amongst a host of other progressive, reform-oriented policies.

Figuring out whether DA Harrington and her prosecutors have stuck to their promises is challenging. Most adult court proceedings are public, including initial appearances at which bail may be requested or cases might be dismissed. However, information on prosecutors’ and judges’ decisions at these pre-trial hearings is not available in a centralized, easy-to-access location from the DA’s office or from the court. This is where courtwatching programs come in.

What is courtwatch?

Courtwatching is a citizen-based data collection and accountability process. Everyday people volunteer their time to observe hearings, to record data on defendants, prosecutors, and judges, and to use that data to promote prosecutor accountability. The Berkshire County CourtWatch Program is modeled off a larger, Boston-based program called CourtWatch MA.

The program here in Berkshire County began during summer, 2019, and data is now flowing in. QSIDE serves as the project’s data analysis partner. We now present a preliminary analysis of roughly 300 hearings held in the Southern Berkshires District Court in Great Barrington. In Massachusetts, the district court hears only lower-level criminal cases. Nonetheless, the impacts of the decisions made there can still mean imprisonment, fines, and a criminal record — and all the consequences that these penalties impose on a defendant. For an excellent read on why misdemeanors play a large role in mass incarceration, see Alexandra Natapoff’s Punishment Without Crime.

Some results of our preliminary analysis are as follows.

Race of Defendants

Black and Latinx defendants are overrepresented in those who appear before the court as compared to the overall population of Berkshire County. (Statistical methods are available upon request.)

Bail and Release

In terms of bail at the District Court level, it appears that the actions of Harrington’s office are in line with her campaign promise: Assistant DAs (ADAs) request bail infrequently. Out of 92 initial hearings, ADAs requested bail only three times: once in the amount of $300 and twice in the amount of $50. In 82 of these hearings, defendants were released on their own recognizance, without condition. Bail and release decisions did not differ significantly by defendant’s race.

Even though bail requests are rare in the data, Harrington’s office has more aggressively pursued non-bail detention of defendants prior to trial in the Superior Court, as this work by CourtWatch MA shows.

Dismissals

Many cases at the District Court level — 46.5% of our sample — are dismissed without a finding. This is advantageous for defendants; they avoid a criminal conviction and the secondary challenges that a conviction can bring. Dismissal rates did not differ significantly by defendant’s race.

Charges

It is critical to consider the charges brought against defendants. The majority of cases, 59%, involve a driving offense. This seems reasonable, as traffic stops are a common law enforcement tool, and as highway I-90 passes through southern Berkshire County. Defendants of all races are approximately equally likely to be charged with a driving offense.

What’s Next?
  • We will collect and analyze more pre-trial hearing data, especially from other courts in the county. The preliminary analysis above deals only with Great Barrington, but we are curious about the district courts in North Adams and Pittsfield, about the county’s Superior Court.
  • We will post de-identified data online for public transparency.
  • We will consider collecting and analyzing data on policing. The DA’s office is only one part of the criminal justice pipeline. The defendants who appear in court were brought into the criminal justice system by contact with law enforcement. We will investigate what data is available on law enforcement contacts — for example, traffic stops — in Berkshire County.