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Prosecutorial Performance Indicators: What Constitutes Success in Prosecution?

October 1, 2020
Rebecca Richardson
Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida International University
Melba Pearson
Director of Policy and Programs at Florida International University
Don Stemen
Associate Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University Chicago

We all recognize that the criminal justice system cannot be reformed without marked progress in the field of prosecution. We also recognize that prosecutors need to be equipped with data and analytics to understand their impact on the communities they serve. But building data systems without committing to measuring prosecutorial success in an objective and holistic manner gets us nowhere.

That is why, in 2017, criminologists from Florida International University and Loyola University Chicago partnered with prosecutor’s offices from Chicago, Milwaukee, Jacksonville, and Tampa, and engaged with thought leaders in the field of criminal justice reform to reimagine and redefine success in prosecution. The work is supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge which aims to reduce unnecessary incarceration and racial and ethnic disparities at the front end of the criminal justice system.

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators—or PPIs, as we call them—are an office management, performance measurement, and accountability and transparency tool. We imagine the tool being used by community members, advocacy groups, researchers, and reporters to hold elected prosecutors accountable. But we also want the tool to help office executives and especially mid-level management to understand trends of their decision making. Making the best possible decisions on each case does not guarantee the best outcomes overall. So, prosecutors need to do both—assess each case and make the best possible decision on it, and examine the cumulative effect of these decisions. For example, consider the medical field: while to a doctor every patient is unique, good doctors also observe trends and research to come up with individualized treatment plans.

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators were developed over three years and painstakingly piloted in the four partner jurisdictions. They are currently being applied in two additional prosecutorial offices in Philadelphia and Charleston, SC.

The idea of creating indicators of success in prosecution is not new. In 2004, the American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI) produced a landmark report, Prosecution in the 21st Century: Goals, Objectives and Performance Measures, which argued that prosecutors should ensure justice in a fair, effective, and efficient manner. We have embraced these goals and expanded them to: (1) improving capacity and efficiency, (2) ensuring community safety and wellbeing, and (3) advancing fairness and justice. Good measures capture impact on the community as well as the system as a whole. Prosecutorial offices need to have capacity to maximize positive impact.

The Prosecutorial Performance Indicators are a menu of 55 measures, which assess office-wide performance on a monthly, quarterly or yearly basis, depending on the issue measured and the size of a jurisdiction. Advancing racial justice is a big component of the PPI framework. There are seven measures dedicated to assessing racial and ethnic disparities at case filing, pretrial detention, diversion and sentencing. Examining the treatment of defendants and victims by their socioeconomic status is another important dimension.

But we also have more traditional measures looking into assisting crime victims, managing caseloads, and preventing recidivism, because all of these things are important too. Furthermore, some measures are more predictable than others. Conviction rate for violent crimes (Indicator 4.2) is a more traditional metric of public safety. Other measures, like ability to identify dismissible cases at filing (Indicator 2.1), which compares the rates of case rejection at filing versus dismissals after filing, require asking questions that most prosecutors may have not yet considered. For example, what is the right filing or dismissal rate, to what extent do these two discretionary decisions relate, and what policy changes will improve the prosecutors’ ability to eliminate dismissible cases as early as possible?

We encourage prosecutorial offices to consult community and advocacy groups as they identify local priorities and develop policy solutions, particularly around community engagement, racial disparities, substance use and drug overdose, and mental health diversion. Community groups can also help select and customize specific indicators for a given jurisdiction. Not only will such groups provide useful perspectives on how to deal with problems, but these partnerships will also strengthen community buy-in and trust as prosecutorial offices implement new policies. Prosecutors should also consider establishing a community advisory board to regularly discuss trends in PPIs.

How can interested prosecutors access the tool? In the era of DIY, we are making the PPIs as user-friendly as possible. We produced an implementation guide, which provides step by step instructions for selecting specific PPIs for a given office and overcoming logistical and political challenges. Partner jurisdictions have already produced or are working towards public-facing dashboards that show PPIs in action. Collecting and presenting data should lead to identifying red flags and positive trends. The PPI website also provides training materials to assist managers with using the indicators to translate numbers into changes in policy and practice.

Doing this work, we realize that prosecutor’s offices have more data and greater capacity to use data than we might think, but someone still has to do the data assessment and analysis. If hiring a researcher is not an option, forming partnerships with local research and academic institutions can be a great way to build sustainable capacity to implement this work.

In the next phase of the project, our team will seek new partners—both prosecutorial offices and researchers—interested in implementing PPIs and bringing data culture into the field of prosecution. While still rare, researcher-practitioner partnerships hold the key to improving the justice system through data-informed decision making, and improving academic research through fresh data and valuable insights from practitioners. We would like to hear from you if you share this vision.