More than two years after the Hawaii Criminal Justice Research Institute was established by lawmakers, the office remains in the preliminary stages of creating a centralized database to better understand the ways people flow through the state’s criminal justice system from arrest to trial and whether any improvements can be made. 

The Criminal Justice Research Institute, which operates directly under the office of the chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, was created by Act 179 in mid-2019 with the purpose of providing the data necessary for lawmakers to enact any policy changes as part of a reform of the state’s correctional system. The data, for instance, could show trends in how long inmates are held in jail before going to trial or the court appearance rate for defendants who are released. 

For over a year, the office remained unstaffed until Erin Harbinson, a criminal justice research scholar and analyst from the mainland, was appointed to be the director in October 2020. 

Since then, the task of pulling and combining pretrial data from all the state’s databases, including those maintained by police, prosecutors, courts, jails, public defenders and supervisory agencies has proven to be arduous. Harbinson has recently gotten some help after the state hired a research analyst to join her about two months ago. 

Aliiolani Hale. Hawaii State Supreme Court Building.
The Hawaii Criminal Justice Research Institute’s office is located in the Hawaii Supreme Court building. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“We talk about the criminal justice system as a system, but in reality it’s not set up as a system that has continuity, that is smooth and linear with some sort of progression,” Harbinson said in an interview.

She added that each agency has unique goals and reporting methods, which makes bridging the gap between them more difficult.

Harbinson said she also faces legal roadblocks because each agency has different sharing requirements and data protections. In addition, the data quality is inconsistent from agency to agency. Each agency also uses different databases and IT systems. 

To better understand how to clear systematic hurdles, Harbinson spent the last year meeting with criminal justice agency heads in both Hawaii and across the country.

“What I’ve been doing this past year is just really developing relationships with people who are working with this data, who impact these different decisions, so that we can do this collaboratively in a way that is sustainable,” Harbinson said.

She has also started getting acquainted with the state’s pretrial data by doing manual extractions, but is still working on determining the best way to merge it all into one.

Harbinson has since mapped out three possibilities.

One approach would be to create a brand-new database that each agency would have access to and use to enter its own data.

“Some states have done a new database because they were the first few states doing pretrial work — like Kentucky, for example, is doing a lot initially around assessment, reform, and creating a new database, a pretrial database from scratch,” Harbinson said.

The problem, she said, is that criminal justice agencies usually collect data for the purposes of their own operations, not research.

“Getting them to change their data systems so that other people in the state can have it to function the way the state wants it is a challenge and I don’t know if we can ever get around that,” Harbinson said.

Another idea would be to enlist help from a software or IT company to pull the data from each agency database into a cloud-based platform, which would allow agencies to keep their current systems as they are, according to Harbinson.

“Illinois has taken this approach to find ways to get reports and enter whole data into one location, but still not asking courts to spend money on new IT systems,” Harbinson said.

A third approach would be for the research institute to author annual reports in which it requests data from agencies, which staff at the research institute would merge, clean, and analyze.

“I’ve been here a year and been trying to create an organization from scratch, create goals, policy, procedures, all those different things and map this out and learn what approaches there are and what makes sense,” Harbinson said.

She added that she will choose an approach over the next year and hopes to begin seeing preliminary trends in the state’s pretrial criminal system around the time the research institute issues its 2022 annual report.

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