April 22nd, 2020

By Ethan Corey
April 22, 2020
The Appeal

The state’s law enforcement agencies failed to implement a 2018 data-sharing law. Now officials are struggling to identify high-risk people to release from county jails.

In Massachusetts, a lack of accurate, real-time data about the criminal legal system has hampered efforts by defense attorneys and some district attorneys to release incarcerated people at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

In separate filings with the state’s highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, district attorneys in Berkshire and Suffolk counties said they had struggled to identify people in pretrial detention or serving short sentences in county jails to prioritize for release. The attorneys said this was because the offices had not received up-to-date data from judicial and law enforcement officials in their counties about the people they had in custody.

Massachusetts has long lacked a centralized database with information about the people being arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated in the state. Instead, agencies across the state maintain their own often incompatible and outdated databases, making it difficult if not impossible to track individuals’ paths through the system. Prosecutors, for instance, know whom their office charges and convicts, but they have little real-time information about what happens to those individuals after sentencing or even during pretrial incarceration. 

“Their systems are incredibly old and archaic and need to be replaced,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

The lack of data makes it difficult to effectively monitor many aspects of the criminal legal system in the state, researchers and advocates say. 

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