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Research Questions

  1. How can jails use the data they collect to improve operations and outcomes?
  2. What high-priority needs did workshop participants identify that would help jails operate in a data-informed manner?

Jails are the entry point to the correctional system in the United States. There are approximately 3,100 jails in the United States, and on any given day, these facilities hold more than 745,000 individuals who are either awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Beyond serving their fundamental detention mission, jails have increasingly become a crucial resource for the larger community because they often serve the medical and behavioral health care needs of large numbers of disenfranchised individuals who come into contact with the justice system. As a result of the sheer number of individuals entering jails and the expanding scope of services that jails are expected to provide, vast amounts of diverse data are generated and used. Despite the opportunity to leverage these data to inform policies and improve both operations and outcomes, most jails, for a variety of reasons, are not consistently operating in a data-informed manner. To examine this issue, the National Institute of Justice, supported by the RAND Corporation in partnership with the University of Denver, hosted a two-day workshop. The workshop brought together a group of jail administrators, researchers, and representatives from national organizations to discuss the challenges related to more-effective use of data in jails and to identify potential solutions to overcome these obstacles. This report provides the prioritized list of needs and accompanying context from the discussion that resulted from this effort.

Key Findings

Almost half of the high-priority needs were related to leadership and organizational issues

  • The needs related to leadership reflect the participants' view that the goal of a data-informed jail is impossible to achieve without the support and commitment of leadership.
  • The participants reported that, in general, jail leaders require better education and training on the value of a data-informed management approach, including a basic level of statistical literacy and analytical skills.

Four of the high-priority needs were related to challenges associated with sharing relevant data with external entities

  • The participants acknowledged that information-sharing is key to successful outcomes, but efforts often are hindered by misconceptions about protected data, a lack of trust in outside organizations, and a lack of confidence in the jail's own ability to manage the risks involved (both real and perceived).

Other high-priority needs were related to procuring and implementing a jail management system, data collection and analysis, and applying the data

  • Needs in these categories included the identification of effective strategies for more-accurate and more-reliable data collection; research into the successful adoption of data-driven performance accountability systems in a jail setting; and the need for a common terminology of key indicators (e.g., recidivism, use of force), which would allow for better comparisons across jails and the ability to leverage larger data sets to identify patterns, trends, and positive outliers in key areas.


  • Develop education and toolkits to help administrators understand the unrealized benefits from proactive data collection and analysis.
  • Incorporate education on practices and benefits of data management into training for academies, leadership, and informal leadership among staff.
  • Create online, self-paced curricula that can be understood by leaders of varying professional backgrounds.
  • Research and promote effective strategies for identifying and monitoring key indicators.
  • Develop effective strategies (e.g., use cases, documentation of return on investment) to champion data-management objectives and to educate line staff on how data collection contributes to the mission of the jail and affects jails' day-to-day work.
  • Develop effective strategies (e.g., use cases, document return on investment) to educate administrators on the urgency of maintaining data management staff.
  • Develop effective strategies to assist jails — and the jurisdictions they support — in planning for the procurement and implementation of information systems that can be part of an integrated, jurisdiction-wide solution.
  • Research and publish guidance documents that are targeted to jail administrators to identify and counter common misperceptions.
  • Develop effective strategies to help diverse stakeholders build trust by identifying and reinforcing value congruence and work through any misperceptions or perceived conflicts.
  • Develop guidance documents on risk-management strategies (e.g., always have a memorandum of understanding, limit scope).
  • Publish guidance on effective strategies to improve the quality of manually input data (e.g., better training, use of predefined fields).
  • Conduct research to identify jails that are effectively applying these models to disseminate successful strategies.
  • Encourage data definitions (e.g., national or state-level) for jails to enable better comparison.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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