Chris Bousquet Grey

By Chris Bousquet • September 25, 2017

Complementing Harvard’s Map of the Month series, each week, Map Monday highlights a data visualization that enhances understanding of or helps resolve a critical civic issue. 

The recent protests of many NFL players and owners are yet another reminder of the controversy that has followed the American criminal justice system throughout the last fifty years. Criticisms of racial, socioeconomic, and other forms of prejudice have dominated recent conversations about law enforcement.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and January Advisors sought to examine these questions from an often-overlooked angle. Rather than analyzing police behavior, these organizations created a tool to understand what happens in the courtroom in Harris County, TX. Based on Harris County criminal court disposition data from 2010-2016, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Dashboard allows users to visualize trends in court determinations and bail based on race, indigency status, arresting agency, and type of crime.

For example, the map shows disparities in dismissals and bail across different racial groups. While black defendants have a dismissal rate of 22 percent and average bail of $5,000, white defendants have a 21.3 percent dismissal rate and average bail of $2,000, and Asian defendants a 27.4 percent dismissal rate and average bail of $1,000.

Black General Comparison Real

The map also provides insights into the effect of legal representation on outcomes. Indigent defendants appointed a public defender have a dismissal rate of 28 percent and average bail of $5,000, while indigent defendants appointed a defense attorney have a lower dismissal rate of 21.3 percent and the same average bail of $5,000. On the other hand, non-indigent defendants have a dismissal rate of 23.5 percent and average bail of $1,000.

Indigency Comparison

The dashboard also allows users to cluster various factors in order to develop more pointed analyses. For example, the dashboard shows that a black defendant arrested for possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana and appointed a public defender has a dismissal rate of 24.3 percent and average bail of $5,000, while a non-indigent white defendant arrested for the same crime has a dismissal rate of 26.9 percent and average bail of $1,000.

Black White Possession Comparison

This tool provides a wealth of useful information for advocates and policymakers intent on making the criminal justice system more fair across racial, socioeconomic, and other differences. By examining disparities in outcomes, governments can make more informed interventions—whether that be seeking to improve state-provided representation, increasing support for legal aid societies, appointing a more representative group of judges, or some other effort.