Documenting the Extent and Nature of Drug and Violent Crime:  Developing Jurisdiction-Specific Profiles of the Criminal Justice System

December 1994

Assessment and Evaluation
Handbook Series No. 4

Bureau of Justice Assistance
Office of Justice Programs
U.S. Department of Justice

 

I. INTRODUCTION

Increasing requests for information on crime and the criminal justice system that was specific to certain jurisdictions led research staff at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to develop county-level profiles of the criminal justice system for each of Illinois' 102 counties. The profiles, first produced in spring 1994, were distributed to county-level criminal justice policy makers and state legislators so they could have one source of information on trends in crime and justice system activities for their jurisdictions. The analyses received a positive response from lawmakers, criminal justice officials, policy makers and others and also generated media attention and stories. They continue to be used frequently as a source of information at many levels.

Staff at the Authority compiled this handbook so that others could develop similar profiles specific to their states' criminal justice systems. Using data that are often collected and maintained by state planning agencies to develop criminal justice block grant applications, these profiles can assist agencies with drug and violent crime control program development, monitoring, assessment and evaluation. The data can be used to identify emerging problems or areas of need and as a tool to facilitate local-level discussions on how to take a systemwide approach to criminal justice planning. In addition, these profiles can provide local agencies with background information and data that would help them identify other sources of funding, such as discretionary grants, that may be available.

In addition to helping develop criminal justice policies, an understanding of the unique nature of crime at the local level will assist both policy makers and members of the public obtain a clearer understanding of crime in their communities, rather than basing opinion on what is heard in national, state, or large-city news reports. To make the enormous amount of data digestible (and therefore usable), the information needs to be presented clearly and concisely, using numerous graphs and limited explanatory text.

The handbook that follows outlines the steps taken by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to develop comprehensive profiles of the extent and nature of drug and violent crime and the justice system's response in each of Illinois' 102 counties. Included in Appendix I is a copy of one of the profiles.

II. AN OVERVIEW OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF COUNTY-LEVEL CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM PROFILES

To develop Illinois's statewide strategy to control drug and violent crime, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority collects and analyzes large amounts of data that measure the extent and nature of crime, and the justice system's response, across various levels of government. Activity and need indicators are collected from every component of the justice system as well as social service providers. As a result, a comprehensive county-level database has been created over a seven-year period. With a little leg-work to identify and work with data sources, virtually any agency can collect this type of information. And with the widespread use of high-powered personal computers and easy-to-use software, it is now possible for almost any agency to analyze the data and disseminate them to the policy that can benefit most from the information.

Although many states do not have one centralized source for the data needed to provide a comprehensive description of criminal justice system activities, it is likely that local criminal justice agencies have been reporting statistics to different state agencies for a relatively long period of time. Such indicators include offenses and arrests reported through Uniform Crime Report (UCR) programs, court filing and disposition data provided to state court administrative agencies, jail population statistics reported to state agencies responsible for monitoring compliance, and probation caseloads reported to either state correctional or court administrative agencies. In addition, state agencies which either receive or serve clients, like prisons, substance abuse treatment programs, children and family service agencies and juvenile delinquency programs also can be a source of specific data form various jurisdictions (such as counties) within their states.

Despite the plethora of data collected and maintained by state-level agencies, often times the local units providing the raw numbers do not receive them back in a format that assists in analysis of trends. Also, when data are published, they are usually not presented in a way that places activity levels from one locality in context with other jurisdictions. Lastly, most reports are specific to one component of the justice system, and do not place them in the larger context of the entire system. For example, most states annually publish a report that contains the number of Index offenses reported to the police, by municipality and county; however, most of these reports lack any kind of trend analysis for each individual jurisdiction or any comparison to other jurisdictions of similar size in the state. In addition, although the contents of these reports are known (and understood) by most police professional and policy makers, often times policy makers from other criminal and social service systems are not familiar with the availability (or interpretation) of the information. This was the problem encountered in Illinois. To provide local jurisdictions with a central source of information on their justice system activities and to do so in a comprehensive and "user-friendly" manner, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority staff created profiles for each of Illinois' 102 county justice systems using data that had been collected and maintained as part of the agency's responsibility for needs assessment, program development and evaluation.

This is not say, however, that the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority accomplished the monumental task on its own. As was stated earlier, numerous state agencies collect criminal and social service activity measures from local agencies. Authority staff members worked with staff from other state agencies to develop the profiles, which covered every justice system component, as well as other disciplines. These agencies included:

The development of these profiles would not have been possible without the cooperation and assistance of staff at all these agencies, who provided not only data but valuable insight into data interpretation and limitations, as well. These individuals have been formally brought together as the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority's Data Advisory Committee to work as a continuing forum and network of agency researchers. Members communicate with one another frequently to handle requests for data, policy analysis and research. Development of the county-level profiles was just one project for which the group provided assistance.

III. STEPS IN DEVELOPING JURISDICTION-SPECIFIC PROFILES CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM ACTIVITIES

The following is intended to serve as a guide in developing jurisdiction-specific profiles of criminal justice system activities.

Step 1: Identifying the Specific Jurisdiction

First, determine the level of aggregation you want to use. County-level aggregation was chosen in Illinois. Here, as in most cases, the majority of police functions are performed by municipal police departments and county sheriff's departments. Also, like most other states, Illinois' court functions, jail operations and probation activities are performed at the county level. Although the state government operates prisons, inmates enter the corrections system from specific jurisdictions. Social service agencies like drug and mental health treatment and child protection agencies follow the same intake procedures.

For the most part, the structure of the justice system will dictate the possible aggregation level. Because courts, jails and probation are all operated at the county level in Illinois, that was the lowest level of aggregation possible.. In other states, courts might be organized be judicial circuits, which will include numerous counties. In those instances, it is possible the data can not be desegregated beyond the circuit level. In other states, probation or treatment programs may be organized at a regional level that may or may not correspond to the boundaries of municipalities, counties, or judicial circuits.

Step 2: Identifying Data Sources and Resources in Other Agencies

Once the aggregation level is determined, it is necessary to determine what data elements are available, which ones will be included, review annually published statistical reports issued by the various state justice and social service agencies. However, it is important to realize that often times data are available at a much more detailed level than are found in these reports. To make inroads with agencies you may not have previously worked with, a letter or other communication from an agency or department head to those at other agencies describing the project and exploratory nature of the concept is essential. After the various agencies have agreed to work with you, it is helpful to speak with staff in their research departments to get a sense of the type of information maintained, how it is maintained (individual or countrywide; it is automated or manual format; and so on), and their willingness to share the information. You will need to find out whether they intend to be active or passive participants - will they actually work on the project, or will they only be able to generate data and answer questions? Developing a matrix of the available data, including the jurisdiction level, variables, time periods covered and format (manual or automated; available formats) is helpful. An example of the Illinois matrix for the information used in the county profiles is shown below in Table 1.

Table 1

Matrix of Data Elements, Source, Time Periods Covered,

Level of Disaggregation and Data Format

Source Time Periods Jurisdiction

Level

Format
Index Offenses Illinois State Police 1972-1992 Municipal Automated
Index Arrests Illinois State Police 1972-1992 Municipal Automated
Drug Arrests Illinois State Police 1974-1992 Municipal Automated
Drug Seizures Illinois State Police 1989-1993 County Automated
Felony Case Filings Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts 1978-1992 County Manual
Sentences Imposed on Convicted Felons Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts 1978-1992 County Manual
Prison Admissions Illinois Department of Corrections 1984-1993 County Manual
Probation Caseloads Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts 1978-1992 County Manual
Jail Populations Illinois Department of Corrections 1981-1991 County Manual
Drug Treatment Admissions Illinois Department of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse 1986-1992 County Automated
Drug-Exposed Births Illinois Department of Children and Family Services 1985-1992 County Manual
Population Illinois Bureau of the Budget 1980-1990 County Automated

At this juncture, several simultaneous decisions need to be made. After determining the type of in information available and the level of detail you would like the profile to reflect, the next step is to determine the specific data you want and the time period you want the data to cover. This process will also help decide who to include on a formal advisory board for the project. Keep in mind that it may be necessary to have representatives from agencies whose data will not be in the report, but who may be needed in the future, either for an expansion of the profiles or for other projects.

Although data may be available for many years, time and resource limitations may restrict the amount of information you can include. For example, although offense and arrest data for Index crimes are available in Illinois from 1972 through 1992, only data for the years 1982 -1992 were included. Although some level of time-series analysis is necessary to properly present trends, it is not necessary (or possible) to include all the data that may be available.

Step 3: Determining Comparison Groups for Specific Jurisdictions

When providing policy makers with a description of criminal justice and social services trends for their specific jurisdictions, it is also helpful to put them into context with other localities. Determining what the comparisons will be, however, can take into account a number of factors. Traditionally, comparisons are made with either the entire state (since these data are relatively easy to obtain) or neighboring jurisdictions. However, there are a number of other possibilities. For example, the comparisons could be made between jurisdictions that share similar characteristics, such as population/size, or geography. For the county profiles developed by the Authority, counties were grouped and compared based on their population and location. Cook County (which includes Chicago) was compared to the rest of the state due to its size. Each of the other counties fell into one of the following groups: suburban "collar" counties (those five which surround Chicago), urban counties outside of the Chicagoland area (those 20 within a Metropolitan Statistical Area as defined by the Bureau of the Census) and rural counties (the other 76 counties in Illinois). Thus, trends for each of the 20 individual counties categorized as urban were presented and compared to all other urban counties in the profiles. Similarly, for each rural county, data trends were compared to all rural counties. Rates were calculated and used to make the comparisons meaningful.

Step 4: Developing and Organizing the Database

Although receiving data in an automated format is the ideal, in some instances this is not possible, either because of incompatible file formats or software, or because the data are only collected manually. For those instances where data are not automated, it will be helpful for you to enter the information into a spreadsheet or database. Although much of the information received at the Authority is case-level data designed for use on a mainframe computer, all of the data used for the profiles, as well as that used for daily research activities, were aggregated and copied onto personal computer-based spreadsheet files. It also is important to maintain separate spreadsheet files for each data set or activity measure, to ensure the files do not get too large and cumbersome when graphics are created or files are updated. To allow for the rate calculations, it also will be necessary to incorporate or link population data files into the files that contain activity measures. One caveat: It is imperative that the spreadsheet software be capable of generating high-quality graphics that can be imported into the word-processing or page layout software that will ultimately be used to create the final document.

Another helpful hint to follow when creating the spreadsheet files is to keep them in a consistent file format and order. All of the county-level spreadsheet files developed by the Authority contained data for each of Illinois' 102 counties; in addition, counties were placed in the same row in every data file. For example, Alexander County was always in the ninth row of every spreadsheet, whether the file was for drug seizures, court filings, or drug treatment admissions (See Appendix II for a sample spreadsheet layout). This is important: formulas needed to create aggregated data can be easily copied from one spreadsheet to another without having to make adjustments because counties were placed in different rows in different files. Spreadsheets are an indispensable tool for projects of this nature because of the ease with which formulas can be updated and copied.

When working with source agencies that have only manual data, keep the following in mind: If the agency responsible for collecting the data would like it automated but lacks resources to do so, it may be possible to provide them with either staff assistance in entering the data, or in hiring a student from a local university to input the necessary information. Approaching this as a collaborative effort, where both parties benefit from the process, will go a long way in building a lasting relationship for future research efforts.

Step 5: Conducting the Analysis and Developing and Organizing the Text

To expedite development of the profile and ensure that they contained comparable information, a "boilerplate" was developed. The boilerplate text identified the generic data to be used and laid the groundwork for describing trends between 1988 (to coincide with the large influx of federal block grant funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance) and the most recent year for which data were available. The boilerplate also laid out the types of graphics to be included and their placement in the report. Before the boilerplate text was "customized" for each of the 102 counties, it was reviewed by an editor. This review process was very beneficial and cost-effective, since detecting and revising grammatical errors or unclear text after all the reports were created would require and extensive and redundant effort.

At this stage, an appropriate amount of time should be built in to the planning process to allow everyone who needs to a chance to review the boilerplate (such as members of an advisory panel). At the Authority, once the text was approved, staff entered the county-specific data into each profile. To do this, the first step involved executing the search and replace command so that the appropriate county name could be placed in the appropriate places in the body of the report. Next, staff analyzed the county-specific data and entered it in the text. To facilitate this, staff generated a printout from each spreadsheet containing the 1988 and most recent year data, rates and percent change. With some software it is now possible to link the spreadsheet database to the text, thereby eliminating the need to print data and enter the numbers into the text.

After the text was customized for each county, the final step involved incorporating spreadsheet-created graphics into the body of the report. Due to software limitations, staff had to create, save and then export graphic files, which were them retrieved by the word processing software and placed in the document. Advances in Windows technology now allow cutting and pasting of graphics directly from spreadsheets to text documents; Macintosh equipment also has this capability. As with the report text, graph titles and legends were originally written in boilerplate fashion and them customized for each county.

Technical Requirements

Computer hardware requirements will depend on the number of reports that are going to be generated, the amount of information they will include and the graphics and software used. Authority staff used Quatro-Pro to maintain spreadsheets and create graphics and WordPerfect for DOS to create the text. Each 36-page county profile contained 29 figures and was 1.5 megabytes in size. Because the files are so large and so much processing time is needed to import figures into the documents, computers with sufficient speed and memory to handle these tasks easily are mandatory. At a minimum, machines with 486 coprocessors operating at a speed of at least 33 megahertz are recommended; a Pentium processor would be even better. In addition to the hardware needed, it is also beneficial to have a Postscript printer with sufficient memory and high enough resolution so you will obtain high-quality graphic output.

Distribution of the Profiles

To ensure the documents get into the hands of those who can benefit from them most, copies should be sent to all county-level justice administrators (sheriffs, state's attorneys, public defenders, chief judges, probation directors), local law enforcement agencies (chiefs of police in the larger jurisdictions), as well as county and state officials involved in setting criminal justice policy (mayors, county board members and legislators). Because many legislative districts cross multiple county lines, profiles for each county within a legislative district should be sent to the appropriate state legislator.

IV. CONCLUSIONS

Although it took a great deal of effort to synthesize the information in the form of county profiles, it was worthwhile and beneficial endeavor. While the profiles were developed to provide criminal justice policy makers with information, they have been used by a variety of others, including substance abuse treatment service providers, community organizations and researchers. In addition, the Authority has been asked by the state's juvenile justice planning agency to develop similar county profiles that document and describe the extent and nature of juvenile crime and the justice system's response. The response from county justice officials who received the profiles also was very positive. Some examples of the responses include:

"(We) found the profiles extremely helpful ... they document problems we all felt existed in our jurisdiction, but didn't have the data to prove."

"I was very pleased with the county profiles and am using the information to assist me in preparing our agency's budget proposal."

"I recently received and read the (county profile for my jurisdiction). I was so impressed I had to take time to commend you. I receive many reports and statistics throughout the year from many agencies, most of which have no useful purpose, but the "profile" is full of useful accurate and detailed information. So often our law enforcement agencies are expected to file reports, surveys, and documents to State and federal agencies that only add to our heavy workload with no benefit."

Once you have gone through the development process, you will find that it is possible to aggregate the data in different ways and generate custom reports quite easily. For example, an Illinois sheriff was addressing a group of policy makers from rural areas and asked the Authority for information on trends in rural crime. Because the data for all the rural jurisdictions had already been collected, stored and aggregated for the profiles, it was a simple process to create a comprehensive report on drug and violent crime in rural counties. The sheriff later wrote, "I just wanted to ... let you know that the rural crime profile you provided me was instrumental in the preparation of my address on rural crime. I found your report to be concise and easily presentable, not to mention more up-to-date than anything else available." Similarly, customized profiles on the extent and nature of drug and violent crime were prepared for each of the three United States Attorneys' offices in Illinois. This was done by creating a formula which aggregated the counties in each federal district in Illinois and copying that formula to all the spreadsheets. These profiles are used by the Law Enforcement Coordinating Councils in each of the U.S. Attorneys' offices in Illinois.

Information and statistics on crime and criminal justice are in ever-greater demand. Jurisdiction-specific profiles are valuable to a variety of stakeholders and are relatively easy to develop. They provide decision-makers with a centrally-located, easy-to-use statistical portrait of criminal justice activity in their jurisdiction. They are a valuable planning, program development and evaluation tool. With a little legwork to identify and work with data sources, most state administrative or planning agencies could develop these reports. And with the development of even more powerful personal computers and integrated word processing, database and graphics software, the creation of jurisdiction-specific profiles will become even easier.

We hope that this handbook and the document it describes will help you to meet that demand in a timely and effective manner.