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Collecting race & ethnicity data in courts

Barriers to Data Collection

July 20, 2020

As America faces questions related to racial justice, so do courts. In addition to internal needs, courts often receive data requests seeking race and ethnicity data. The National Center's Court Statistics Project sought to address these needs in its latest publication, “Collecting Race & Ethnicity Data: A Court Statistics Project Data Governance Special Topic.” Based on the recently released National Open Court Data Standards (NODS), the report addresses five main questions.

  • Should courts collect race and ethnicity data? This depends on whether the information is simply “nice to know” (which is not a sufficient reason to gather data) or whether it will be used to address questions or to establish or evaluate policy and practices. Moreover, given the potentially sensitive nature of such data, it is important to consider security and who has access to the information.
  • Are there national standards regarding race and ethnicity data? NODS recommends the collection of race and ethnicity in all case types, not just criminal cases. NODS uses racial and ethnic designations broader than those defined by the Census, but consistent for uses of comparison.  Individual courts should consider expanding the categories they collect to fit the needs of their community.
  • How can a court collect race and ethnicity data?  NODS provides that self-identification is preferred for race and ethnicity. According to a recent survey, observation is the most common method for courts collecting race and ethnicity data. This is a less accurate method than self-identification. Some courts also receive the information through data exchanges with other agencies, which may also be based upon observation.
  • Is a court required to release race and ethnicity data? Whether the data are obtained from another agency or from the court/court staff, a data governance policy in compliance with statutes and other court rules should identify what data are releasable.
  • What are the barriers to data collection? The two most common barriers to the collection of race and ethnicity data are limitations of the technology system and lack of agreement by leadership. Lack of staff time, uncertainty about data usefulness, and lack of funding are also obstacles.

Members of some racial or ethnic groups may not fit into the existing categories or may fall under a category that does not accurately reflect the inequalities they experience. One method of addressing this issue is to ask for nationality in addition to ethnicity. This approach preferred by the majority (54%) of Hispanic adults surveyed about how they self-identify.

The full report can be found at the Court Statistics Project site www.courtstatistics.org.