GIST: " “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year,” FBI Director James Comey told reporters in April. This raises an obvious question: If the FBI can’t tell how many people were killed by law enforcement last year, what other kinds of criminal-justice data are missing? Statistics are more than just numbers: They focus the attention of politicians, drive the allocation of resources, and define the public debate. This data’s absence shapes the public debate over mass incarceration in the same way that silence between notes of music gives rhythm to a song. Imagine debating the economy without knowing the unemployment rate, or climate change without knowing the sea level, or healthcare reform without knowing the number of uninsured Americans. Legislators and policymakers heavily rely on statistics when crafting public policy. Criminal-justice statistics can also influence judicial rulings, including those by the Supreme Court, with implications for the entire legal system. Beyond their academic and policymaking value, there’s also a certain power to statistics. They have the irreplaceable ability to both clarify social issues and structure the public’s understanding of them. A wealth of data has allowed sociologists, criminologists, and political scientists to diagnose serious problems with the American criminal-justice system over the past twenty years. Now that a growing bipartisan consensus recognizes the problem exists, gathering the right facts and figures could help point the way towards solutions.

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