After graduating from Stanford Law in 2001, Amy Bach only knew she wanted to practice law. She founded her legal practice and began making inroads as a DWI and trucking accident lawyer. As years passed into a decade and a half in the legal system, Bach noticed trends that others did not.
She decided to write a book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.
She wanted to back up these observations with hard data but found that no collection of such data existed. Each county kept its own records. In a criminal justice system that had developed database after database to catch criminals, no one watched the justice system to ensure justice actually got served.
Bach came up with a simple idea, first tested in Wisconsin. She and colleagues created a database with a friendly graphical user interface that made it simple for citizens, journalists, and attorneys to search the amalgamated data.
Hosting it online with free access ensured everyone could use it. The data amassed included each arrest, trial, and outcome – conviction, acquittal, no contest, mistrial, etc. Linking the database to a map of the county used in the test design created a graphical information system (GIS) database that allows the user to point and click on a map to learn more about an area or to conduct a search using a search box query tool.
This tool proved useful to the Milwaukee area that served as its testing ground. The project, dubbed Measures of Justice, received grant funding and the non-profit Bach founded expanded the database to include the entire US.
So, what did the use of the GIS database uncover? It showed certain areas of the US where no violent crime case had gone to trial in five years. The use of the database also uncovered areas of the US where low-income individuals were seven times as likely to be incarcerated for a drug crime than a moderate- or high-income individual. These discoveries spur change.
The Measures for Justice non-profit project also queued the US government to the importance of monitoring the justice system. The Department of Justice and its National Institute of Corrections now links to the database, supporting it rather than attempting to duplicate it.
Bach’s experience provides inspiration for many. Just think. The young attorney was only a decade out of law school when she noticed the disturbing trends that caused her to author her book.
She founded the non-profit in 2011. In 2013, she and colleagues conducted the Milwaukee County project. By 2017, they expanded the database to include six states. In 2020, the US DOJ spotlights the national database and supports the non-profit’s continued documentation of the US justice system.