New partnership opens Chatham County DA case records to data analysis

The Chatham County District Attorney’s Office is opening its case files for a full case review in an effort to increase public safety and fairness in the criminal justice system.

The district attorney partnered with a nonprofit organization called Justice Innovation Lab to analyze the data. The group recently worked with Charleston, SC, where the organization recommended that prosecutors implement a “screening” practice to ensure that only criminal cases with strong evidence enter the case funnel.

The goal of the Charleston recommendation was to reduce the backlog of cases made worse by COVID-19 court closures and ensure prosecutors prioritize worthwhile cases, according to Jared Fishman, executive director and founder of the non-profit organization based in Washington DC.

Fishman, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted the 2015 police killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, said the group was processing an initial slice of data from DA Shalena Cook Jones’ office in Savannah.

“We’ll likely do similar interventions to what we did in Charleston in terms of being able to filter bad cases out of the system earlier and create a better relationship with police to keep those cases out,” Fishman said.

In Chatham County, the organization will look at several factors, Fishman said, including:

  • What crimes do prosecutors spend the most time on
  • Potentially heavy fines and fees
  • Types of Sentences Defendants Receive
  • How long people are held in jail before trial
  • The average time it takes for the prosecutor’s office to process cases
  • Any racial or gender disparities or other factors

During a recent speech defending her record, Jones, a Democrat, said her new approach to criminal justice was underpinned by better data collection and a reallocation of resources to tackle crime issues.

Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones speaking at an NAACP meeting. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/The Current AG

Local Republican politicians have linked a minor increase in violent crime in Savannah — which is mirrored in many US cities — to DA policies.

“Contrary to what the current DA believes, not every felon can be driven to be a good citizen,” former assistant district attorney and former local judge candidate Anthony Burton wrote on Facebook in a recent comment. against Jones.

Crime is worse now for citizens, Jones said in his speech, as Covid exposed the underbelly of an overstretched system.

“People want to talk about this increase in violent crime that happened after Covid. But that part of the equation actually hasn’t changed,” she said during her speech in downtown Savannah. “I’m here to tell you that Covid is the proverbial match that has lit the powder keg of all societal ills.”

Fishman said it’s too early to tell exactly what’s driving the rise in violent crime in the United States — further analysis of the data is needed.

Fishman said there is a growing consensus among many criminal justice experts that the US criminal liability system is not working. He said that goes for several different metrics: recidivism, victim satisfaction, and money spent.

“We spend hundreds of billions of dollars incarcerating people, monitoring people. And if it increased our public safety, then maybe it would be worth it,” he said. “But we don’t see that.”

He hopes the 18-month project examining Chatham County data will identify problems and help find quick fixes to make residents feel safer.