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The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, 698 per 100,000 population (Prison Policy Initiative, 2018). Washington’s rate is lower at 480 per 100,000, but even this state locks up four times as many people, relatively speaking, as Canada. Women are a minority in prisons and jails nationwide. In Washington, this figure is about 20% and as a result, information specific to women is lost in the data overall, where men are the majority.

The Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission of Washington State decided in 2019 to commission descriptive research on the numbers of women the state was incarcerating. The justices were interested in the social/racial-ethnic identities of the women, and also in whether women of colour were being convicted and sentenced disproportionately to white women. In this way, the project was concerned with equity right from the start.

The project budget was small, which meant that collecting new data wasn’t an option. Instead, the team analyzed existing data sources on convicted persons from a state agency and did so disaggregated by gender. The team worked from the assumption that no member of one racial or ethnic group is more inherently predisposed to commit felony offences than someone in another race or ethnic group. They used county- and state-level Census data to compare with the data on incarcerated women.

As soon as the work began, the team discovered many problems with data on race and ethnicity in the dataset from the agency. For one, it merged race and ethnicity into one category, unlike the way the Census does it. These inconsistencies meant that the agency data most likely underestimated the number and proportion of Latinas who were incarcerated. The Asian American category used by the agency may also have hidden differences by rolling Pacific Islanders into that group. Additional investigation also indicated that in quite a few counties, persons on trial did not self-report their social identities, but were categorized by others in the court system, such as attorneys or bailiffs.

In short, the data were not what the team thought they were when work began. The analyses were further complicated by the agency’s reluctance to provide background on data collection methods or answer questions.

The team decided transparency was the only option. They put together a retrospective Data Biography that pointed out the many limitations of the dataset and decided to share the imperfect analyses anyway, on the basis that offering a blurry data picture of a potentially inequitable situation is better than no picture at all — provided everyone knows that the picture is out of focus.

In their analyses, racial disproportionality in conviction and sentencing would be shown if group proportions across racial or ethnic groups were substantially different between the data on incarcerated women and Census data about the state population overall. The work was the first time Washington had looked at the social identities of the women it was incarcerating. In other analyses, men and women had always been combined.

Results suggested considerable racial disproportionality in the conviction and sentencing of women, with Black and Indigenous women worst affected.

The team presented the findings at the 2021 Washington State Supreme Court Symposium. The presentation raised the justices’ awareness of the serious inequity in incarceration in the state and illuminated the need to collect better data to examine disproportionality more precisely. Had the team been aware of the Data Biography concept at the start of the project, they would have begun by asking many more questions of the agency that provided the data. However, even a retrospective Data Biography was a valuable tool to increase transparency and bring attention to the data equity issues at hand.

Remember, there is no “perfect” dataset without equity issues – only people who are working to do better and people who aren’t.

You can watch a 15-minute presentation of these results archived on Washington State’s TV station, by clicking this link and selecting timestamp 9:15.