There is a nearly unimaginable amount of research that can be conducted on only the relatively small amount of data gathered for this project. Below, two crimes (misdemeanor marijuana possession and felony family violence) have been selected for special extended statistical analysis. For each of these case studies, data was taken from yearly reports about each county from 2011 through 2017, and sums and averages were found by treating each county during each year as a different data point, for a total of 1,778 counties-per-year (for example, Anderson county in 2011 and Anderson county in 2012 would be treated as two different counties-per-year). Each county-per-year has an associated 192 possible data points attached to it (including misdemeanor and felony filing rates and sentencing information), which have been used to generate the statistics below.
Aside from these statistical findings, this project has uncovered a great deal of information regarding the level of political transparency common to Texas District Attorney offices. The ramifications of these transparency findings are also discussed below, as well as suggestions for future research.
Misdemeanor Marijuana Possession
Laws regarding marijuana are changing fast around the country, and although medical marijuana is not common in Texas (and recreational marijuana is of course still completely illegal), the changing legal culture surrounding THC has led to some informal changes throughout the lone star state. Notably, Harris County DA Kim Ogg has instituted a Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program (MMDP),which allows people who would be charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession to avoid an arrest and criminal charge via completion of the program. The MMDP has had massive ramifications for Harris County, and likely contributed to the county's 3,260 sentence drop in total number of reported misdemeanor marijuana possession sentences between 2016 and 2017.
Programs like the MMDP are a big change for Texas, which has historically been regarded as one of the strictest in regard to marijuana laws. In fact, for all the counties-per-year that reported at least one sentence for misdemeanor marijuana possession between 2011 and 2017, the average percent of sentences that included jail time was around 46%. During that time period, 91 counties-per-year reported a jailing rate for misdemeanor marijuana possession of 100%, with Hidalgo county taking the lead by jailing 100% of the 1,118 people sentenced for misdemeanor marijuana possession in 2011. However, changes may be on the way; 200 counties-per-year reported a 0% jailing rate between 2011 and 2017, with Wichita County prosecuting, but not jailing, a high of 381 people in 2017. Researchers interested in this topic would be well served to seek out data on the relative lengths of misdemeanor marijuana possession sentences, as well as the use of alternative disposition programs, which are not reported by the state.
Felony Family Violence
The question from Lone Star Policy Institute director Michael Wood that began this project was, "Is it easier to beat your wife in Fort Worth than it is in Dallas?" Although the comparative ease of family violence in Texas counties is undoubtedly strongly tied to policing and unmeasurable cultural phenomena, some insight into the relative punishment for such crimes can be provided by this project's data. For the 990 counties-per-year that reported at least one sentence for felony family violence, the average percent of sentences that were probation or community service was about 37%. Both Dallas and Fort Worth (Dallas and Tarrant county, respectively) reported probation and community service sentencing rates well below that average, with Dallas reporting an extreme in 2013 by giving 0 probation and community service sentences to the 291 people sentenced for felony family violence that year. In 2016 and 2017 Dallas continued to avoid probation and community service sentences for felony family violence, maintaining a 0% probation and community service sentencing rate for the crime. Tarrant county, by slight contrast, reported about a 3% probation and community service sentencing rate for felony family violence during those years, making it, at least for some sentencing practices, the slightly less-strict county of the two.
However, between 2011 and 2017, 144 counties-per-year reported a 100% probation and community service sentencing rate for felony family violence, with Hutchinson county topping the chart in 2015 by sentencing all 10 felony family violence offenders to probation and community service. Although some may believe that counties like Hutchinson are being too lenient to felony family violence offenders (or that counties like Tarrant and Dallas are being too harsh), plea bargaining and case information, as well as specific information about the length and terms of individual sentences, should all be considered before passing judgment on these sentencing levels.
Though the data that made the above statistical analysis possible is interesting, and will hopefully add to scholarship on the Texas criminal justice system, it is the opinion of the researcher that the greatest finding from this research is that which points to the huge lack of data available about Texas District Attorney offices. The example set by Cook County's Open Data portal is instructive here. Researchers and curious community members alike can use this free online resource to view and query for information on virtually every criminal case prosecuted in Cook County. Each case and case participant is given a unique identifier that can be used to track individuals and cases through the criminal justice system. With these identifiers, not only can the demographic information of each case participant be tracked and used to generate sweeping research findings, but also as the case progresses its charge, processing details, and comprehensive sentencing information are updated, adding even more available information for the public. All of the available data can be exported in a variety of ways, and there is additional resources provided for interacting with the data via code.
By contrast, the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) website provides the best centralized information for Texas courts, and, as the Methodology page details, the information on this website is not detailed, most likely wrong, and, currently, not actually accessible for export via Excel or Word (the two software options that would make the data usable for most researchers). Additionally, it appears that no Texas DA offices are tracking the kind of personal demographic data that is commonplace in Cook County's portal, such as the age, gender, and race of case participants. In short, the state of data tracking in Texas DA offices is abysmal, which puts local Texas communities at a huge disadvantage. Without reliable pubic information about their elected officials and criminal justice institutions, it is impossible for Texans to interact with these institutions and make informed voting decisions. Texas counties need to adapt to the digital and data-driven world, and it may take pressure from local constituencies to make that change happen.
Future Research and Policy
Increased transparency is a great starting place for policy aimed at improving the operations of Texas DA offices. Requiring local offices to report detailed demographic, prosecution, and sentencing data to the state would open up a world of research, both private and public. With that research, state legislators and local communities could make more informed decisions about their criminal justice institutions, and the public would be more able to hold their elected officials accountable.
In the meantime, the data set accumulated for this website is available for even more research, and could be added to in order to answer more interesting questions. Future research might inquire into the effect a DA's party affiliation might have on sentencing intensity, as well as the correlations between county demographic data and the frequency of various crimes. If you are interested in conducting such research, head over to the Methodology page for access to this research's data set.