“Jewish values embrace the right of the individual to justice, truth, and peace. These are essential, but invisible, qualities of a good life. My work is to make the invisible visible. To ensure that the way we treat each other is never secret, but transparent. So that people can stand up for the individual and preempt travesties well before they have a chance to take hold.”
Today the U.S. leads the industrialized world in incarceration. With only five percent of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population, a tremendous amount of resources has been invested into the system without the fundamental data necessary to determine whether spending is actually reducing crime, improving fairness, or lessening recidivism. And yet state and federal spending on corrections has grown 400% over the past 20 years—becoming one of the fastest growing line items in state budgets.
Those impacted are disproportionately nonwhite. One in 6 black men has spent time in prison as opposed to 1 in 39 white men. The upshot is a system that doesn’t work equally well for everyone.
Believing that “you cannot change what you can’t see,” Measures for Justice’s solution is to begin, simply, with the facts—to supply legislators, practitioners, change makers, everyone with the data they need to channel resources appropriately, to focus reform efforts wisely, and to replicate best practices. The work stands to affect millions of Americans and will be the foundation for a model that can be exported to countries worldwide.
Amy Bach is the Founder, Executive Director and President of Measures for Justice, an organization that measures criminal justice performance by collecting, cleaning, and coding county-level criminal justice data.
She founded the organization as a follow-up to her acclaimed book, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, which won the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. The book demonstrated how well-intentioned prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys can become so inured to patterns of problems, they no longer see them.
Bach founded Measures for Justice (MFJ) in April 2011 to develop a set of performance measures from arrest to post-conviction—the whole system—and to compare the results across counties. Many people said that county-level measurement was impossible because there was no data. This wasn’t true. The data are there, but are in isolated databases and in disparate formats across the country’s more than 3,000 counties. MFJ measures at the county-level because this is where most people encounter the criminal justice system.
Last May—after six years of work—MFJ released six states’ worth of data online that can be broken down by race and ethnicity, sex, indigent status, and age. The organization is on its way to measuring all 50 states. The results are free and available to anyone.
Bach graduated from Brown University and Stanford Law School. After law school, she began clerking for federal appellate Judge Rosemary Barkett on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami. She then worked as a legal journalist, writing for the Nation Institute about severe injustices that typically fly below the radar of the mainstream press. During that time, she got the idea to write a book and spent nearly a decade researching and assessing problems plaguing criminal courts and the citizens they serve.
Her research took her to, among many counties, Quitman County, Mississippi where she met a woman named Sharon, who told Bach that her boyfriend beat her senseless with a tire iron. Photos were taken in the emergency room, the police wrote up an aggravated assault report and then nothing happened. Neither the police nor the local prosecutors pursued the case. Bach’s research revealed that Quitman County had not prosecuted a domestic violence case in 21 years. When she told this to the prosecutor, he had no idea it had been that long.
Motivated by this prosecutor and the hundreds of other practitioners like him who were unable to see the big picture, Bach decided to do something about this problem, and founded Measures for Justice to enable all parties in the criminal justice system to make better, informed choices.
Bach began the organization with a staff of one. Today MFJ has 49 employees and anticipates measuring 20 states by 2020 on its way to all 50.
Bach has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. In June 2011, Echoing Green, a premier seed investor for social entrepreneurs, selected Bach as a Fellow out of 3,000 candidates worldwide to support the launch of Measures for Justice. In 2012, she was named a Draper Richards Kaplan Social Entrepreneur. For her work on Ordinary Injustice, Amy received a Soros Media Fellowship, a special J. Anthony Lukas citation, and a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. She was a Visiting Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Adjunct Professor at the University of Rochester.
MFJ and Bach’ work have been covered in The New York Times, Bloomberg News, Wired, The Nation, Salon, Tampa Bay Times, The Salt Lake Tribune, and many others.
Bach lives in Rochester, NY, with her family, where Measures for Justice is based.