The “What Ifs” Along the Road in the Quest of a Justice Index

What if we could draw an indicator of the “health” of the justice systems throughout the United States – a Justice Index - from readily available public data that is impartial, reliable, objective and comparable, let’s say the amount of time that criminal defendants spend in custody without a trial, or even without any access to legal or justice services? Or the bail amounts imposed on misdemeanor defendants?  

This kind of a measure would not be perfect – no measure is – but it would be something, better than nothing. It would address questions of fairness and efficient use of public resources. That is, a criminal defendant languishing in jail awaiting trial suffers, at the least, a delay in justice. He or she is also occupying a jail bed and spending taxpayers’ money.

What if we then join this measure with another meaningful indicator of the health of our justice systems in counties and states, let’s say the degree to which jurisdictions prosecute domestic violence cases. That would be something else – maybe not yet a vital sign but better than just something.

What if we then join these two measures, in a transparent and verifiable way, with still other indicators drawn from readily available public data to form a balanced scorecard of measures of justice? Now that would be a long way from nothing, which is where we started. On that note, it is intriguing that on the international scene, compared to the United States, rule of law and justice indices, like the World Justice Project’s WJP Rule of Law Index™ and the American Bar Association’s Judicial Reform Index, constitute a relatively crowded field of inquiry.

What if we then made adjustments to this scorecard (for example, for different unemployment rates or other socioeconomic factors) without which people may hesitate to use the scorecard in assessing the health of the justice system in their communities?  (Warning. This is where the going might get a little rough as the usual suspects among the stakeholders in academia and politics weigh in with the usual arguments: We are unique and incomparable, you cannot reduce our performance to a number, and so forth. Of course, this only happens if their locale does not stack up well in the rankings.)

What if we then compared this scorecard against some other information about health of the justice system in communities throughout the U.S.?  For example, we might know that some jurisdictions in the U.S. simply would not seem to belong in the top ten or the bottom ten among communities in the U.S., just like Afghanistan would seem out of place in the top ten and Norway in the bottom ten countries around the world. We then could make further adjustments of things that were out of whack in the scorecard.

And then, what if we then could mashup this scorecard into a single number –  let’s say a number from 1 to 100 – a number that would be little bit more intuitive than the DOW industrial average, which we seemed to have gotten use to even though the number itself is meaningless. (What does 14,998.92, the DOW as I write this sentence, really mean?)

If we did all this, we would be very far down the road in the quest of a Justice Index that could be used to identify the positive deviants and bright spots among our communities.

This, incidentally, is the road taken and the quest of Measures for Justice, an organization started in 2011 by journalist and law professor Amy Bach, whose 2010 book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, explored the everyday workings of local U.S. criminal courts.

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