Crime and Punishment: A Data-Dive Into Prosecutorial Bias

Yi Research group photo

From left: Youngmin Yi (Sociology), Jamie Rowen (Legal Studies and Political Science), Joshua Kaiser (Sociology), Cindy Xiong (Computer Science), Guiherme Santos Rocha (Undergraduate, Sociology and Computer Science), Hamza Elhamdadi (PhD Student, Computer Science)

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests brought widespread attention to racial inequality in the criminal justice system and spurred many district attorneys to introduce reforms to their practices. In doing so, such “progressive prosecutors” have turned to data to assess their progress and increase transparency. But are these reforms truly advancing equality and accountability?

scales of justice

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests brought widespread attention to racial inequality in the criminal justice system. With a newfound sense of urgency, many district attorneys (DAs) introduced reforms to reduce bias and inequality and increase their legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents. In the course of these reforms, such “progressive prosecutors” have leaned on administrative data to assess their progress and increase transparency.

But it remains to be seen whether these efforts are indeed working – or making the criminal justice system more accountable to the public. That’s where this research comes in.

In this project, a multi-disciplinary team, comprised of experts in various fields, will assess the impact of the “progressive prosecution” reforms. While the team is seeking additional funding to investigate the full scope of this issue, the IDS-funded portion of the project will attempt to shed light on the very foundation of the problem: where and how in the prosecutorial system
do bias and disparities exist?

Under the mentorship of a diverse and experienced group of faculty, students will develop critical skills in the analysis of administrative records and data, gain exposure to mixed-methods research, and build a network of collaborators and colleagues at UMass Amherst that cuts across colleges, departments, and programs.

Intervening directly in ongoing debates about criminal justice reform, this research will have a broad impact. The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office in Western Massachusetts has asked to use the findings to inform their practices. Additionally, the findings will be used to support future research and will be presented at research centers at UMass Amherst and broader academic and legal communities.

As such, we hope this project will give students the opportunity to see a direct, positive impact from their research, empowering them to see STEM – and themselves – as a force for social good.