Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell at the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

How to answer Snohomish County’s basic crime questions? ‘Transparent data’

An initiative funded in part by Microsoft could reveal racial disparities, while creating an “apples to apples” database.

EVERETT — Amid rising public safety fears and disagreements on what to do about it, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell thinks one initiative could help.

With funding from a tech giant and researchers from a university thousands of miles away, the prosecutor’s office is working on building a public-facing data dashboard to help Snohomish County residents better understand the black box that can be the local criminal justice system.

Culling data from the sheriff’s office, prosecutors and local courts, the initiative aims to explain how a criminal case shakes out from the first police call for service to potential sentencing, with a focus on possible disparate outcomes for people of color. Right now, that data is “siloed” in multiple databases that can be “nigh impossible” for the public to find quickly, Cornell told The Daily Herald.

“We’re accountable to the community, to the taxpayers of the county,” he said. “And, really, accountability starts with transparency and bringing reliable and accurate and transparent data is the first step in … improving the law and justice system in Snohomish County.”

Many police officials warn of rising crime, but publicly available data is minimal, making it difficult to confirm that claim. The FBI is meant to be a clearinghouse for that data from law enforcement agencies across the country. It’s supposed to help show trends over time — for what seem like pretty straightforward questions.

How many people were arrested?

How many murders were there?

But last year nearly 40% of police agencies across the country didn’t submit any data. That could create a vacuum of information where officials can lead the conversation without accountability. Almost 90% of agencies in Washington did send in statistics.

The Snohomish County initiative allows local officials to take control when national sources fall through.

It began with a call from the Snohomish County Council in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, for proposals to identify equity issues in the law and justice system. Microsoft’s Justice Reform Initiative chipped in $250,000. The county allocated some more, but that hasn’t been tapped yet. The money is being used to contract the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance to lay the groundwork for the dashboard. That took about a year, said project manager Benjamin Estep, of CUNY.

Police and prosecutors in other regions often post data online, but combining the two along with the courts is rare, Estep said.

“It’s not just that police and prosecutors rightly should be under the microscope, but so should the courts,” Cornell said.

He said the dashboard will dig much deeper than crime trends. It looks to show the path throughout the criminal justice system, with data points such as:

• When judges set bail or release suspects after arrest;

• How long suspects are in jail;

• When prosecutors decline or accept criminal charges;

• When defendants plead guilty or go to trial;

• What kind of sentences they get if convicted;

• And how race might correlate to those.

“There is inherent value in better understanding what we do at every level,” said Jason Schwarz, director of the county’s Office of Public Defense. “And particularly as it relates to places where we may have biases.”

That said, demographic data is often imperfect or missing, Estep said. For example, existing reporting categories might not include how someone identifies.

The dashboard also will give a peek into how the court system is recovering from a pandemic that has helped induce simultaneous backlogs in both charged cases and police referrals to prosecutors for a charging decision, Cornell said.

“The community is going to be interested, even more persistently now, about how are law and justice partners responding to the end of the pandemic and resolving cases and being attentive to victims and to the needs of those accused of crimes,” the prosecutor said.

The data project won’t give answers on how to solve law and justice issues, but start informed policy discussions to find those solutions, Cornell hopes. He said people have been talking past each other on public safety because they can’t agree on facts. They “need to be comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges, and not apples to oranges to radishes.”

“When you have siloed data, it becomes very hard to tell a story for a system as a whole,” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor who is coordinating the initiative. “And this will allow us to look at the law and justice system on a larger level and then start having the real conversations.”

Cummings is running to replace Cornell atop the prosecutor’s office, who will be leaving office after one term. Cornell has cited the data initiative as one of the things he’s most proud of working on.

While officials have gathered the data, what it shows remains unknown. Now the county’s IT department is working with Microsoft to crunch the stats for public consumption.

The dashboard is planned to go live in October.

“Ideally, it will give us an opportunity as local government decision-makers and elected officials to have some understanding about the decisions we make and how they impact our community,” Schwarz said. “And then also learn from them and be better about it.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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