It’s Time for Oklahoma to Care About Data Collection

How many Oklahomans are currently behind bars? How long have they been there, and on what charges? How many are detained pre-trial, without having been convicted of anything? The State of Oklahoma cannot answer any of these basic and fundamental questions because we are relying on data systems that are decades old. Oklahoma is being left behind in an increasingly digital world and instead continues to rely on an incomplete and antiquated system to craft public policy. 

Back when governments relied solely on paper, advanced data analysis was impossible. Huge stacks of paper contained completely unamagemanagable amounts of information. Policy makers relied on intuition, personal expertise, anecdotal evidence, and political ideology to craft public policy. A method which according to leading psychologists, opens up the very functioning of society to numerous biases and other logical distortions. Technology has evolved immensely over the last few decades to the point where large scale data collection is possible. Getting that data into the hands of policy makers would help to eliminate those biases and ensure that taxpayer money is being spent in the most efficient manner possible. 

Unfortunately, in this area, Oklahoma has yet to reach the 21st century. OSBI and Oklahoma’s courts have not updated their data systems in decades. Prosecutors employ data systems that cannot communicate with the Sheriffs. The Department of Corrections has its own system that does not communicate with anyone else. This sort of ad hoc, each agency for itself, method of data storage creates an absolute mess for law enforcement and policy makers who are forced to wade through data points that are not standardized and do not communicate. This system is harming Oklahoma by keeping everyone blind to the realities of the criminal legal system, and policy fixes become difficult to create when nobody can easily identify a problem, much less solve it. 

Scholarship into public policy failures has highlighted several routine reasons that important policies fail. All of these common reasons can be eliminated, or at the very least reduced, with reliable access to high quality data. On the other hand, according to research, using data does not directly replace politics with a data driven robotic system, but rather serves to guide lawmakers into the best evidence based practices within their existing political beliefs and the needs of their districts.  

A large scale data collection and storage system creates opportunities for targeted investments into the criminal legal system. Data driven investments could end up saving the taxpayers money by ensuring those funds are used in the most efficient manner possible and allowing legislators to foresee any unintended consequences of new policy. For instance, Iowa began routinely doing complex data analysis to track the impact of legislation on marginalized communities nearly 15 years ago - while in 2022, Oklahoma lacks the available data to even attempt such an analysis. 

Advanced data analysis in the Iowa mold is just the tip of the iceberg. The data could also be used to highlight areas in the system that are succeeding and give policymakers incentives to expand those programs as necessary. The potential uses and benefits of accessible and standardized data are endless. The only true limit is the imagination of the legislature. The private sector has realized the benefits and used large scale data collection to increase efficiency and understand their customers better for decades.

States as diverse as Florida, Michigan, Utah, and Virginia have looked towards the future and pushed for a centralized data system. Oklahoma can do the same. The current system is antiquated and opens the door for bad policy through no other fault than simple lack of information. Oklahomans are increasingly rejecting a binary liberal or conservatve viewpoint, with 72% of Oklahoma voters believing the state’s criminal justice system needs “significant improvement.”  What Oklahomans really want is government efficiency, an unbiased criminal legal system, and lawmakers to employ the best evidence available when creating public policy. Better policy requires better data, and Oklahoma deserves the best of both.