Scraping the Courts

Uncensored government records are tough to get and our local agencies make it no easier. Unlike the Federal Government, where they’ve been releasing useful information for years, the City of Austin just got into the Open Data game.

At the end of 2011, they revamped their site and included their own online public information section, data.austintexas.gov. There are little quotes plastered on it about being dedicated to “Open Government” and “transparency, efficiency, and collaboration.”

The site holds totally random records from various city agencies. You can find stuff like a restaurant inspection scores database, a chart of popular crimes, a list of places where tickets were written, and even a map of “declared dangerous dogs.”

I looked for Austin Police Department arrest data and found it. I was surprised. But when I actually browsed the records, I saw they left out everything useful – there were no details about who was arrested, so I couldn’t analyze it. I dug further and saw the APD also has some transparency tools on their website. One called CrimeViewer sounded like something I’d want to use, but it turned out to be pretty lame. This tool just shows a map with little icons drawn on it that represent where crimes happened and is even less useful for picking apart.

What about the courts? I know that court records are supposed to be public information, but does the County publish them freely? No. The Open Data website was City-only and the County seemed to be even further behind using the internet.

Neither the City or the County published useful information that someone could actually use to see where people are arrested, who they are, and what happens to them once they’re booked. I filed some open records requests with the City and the County to find out how many people were arrested in the past year and a half and how often they got bailed out. Technically, they had ten days to either give me access to the information or to tell me why they couldn’t. (Twenty if the request took a lot of programming, which mine didn’t.) But almost two months later, after nagging e-mails and calls, and still no arrest records, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I found something called the APD Incident Reports Database where you enter a date and it prints out the police reports filed. I figured out that I could write a program to automatically download all the police reports for the past year and a half, the furthest back they allow, and enter them into a database. Compared to the arrest information on the City’s Open Data website, this information was totally raw and unfiltered.

Caption: APD arrests between May 2011 and Nov 2012. These arrests were gathered from the APD Incident Database, geocoded, and plotted here. The larger the circle, the more arrests happened at that address. The colors represent different races/ethnicities being arrested -- green: Hispanic, red: White, blue: Black.

I found something similar on the Travis County Clerk’s website that I could use – a misdemeanor court search tool. I wrote a computer program that went through them, by offense date, and collected everything I could. Within a few hours I’d downloaded over six years of criminal history.

The City’s Open Data turned out to be useless. Travis County made it so you couldn’t get court case info without serious computer skills. Going through normal channels (public information officers) was taking forever. But this didn’t stop me from being able to hack together a big-picture view of how people move through our local criminal processing machine from arrest to sentencing.

Step One: Arrest

This is where it all begins and it doesn’t work the same for everyone. Between May 2011 and November 2012, I logged 75,692 arrests. This was every arrest reported by the APD in the past year and a half.

According to the city’s eventual response to my open records request, the Black arrest rate during this time span was over four times higher than Whites’ and almost three times higher than Hispanics’. Whatever the reason, the Austin Police Department was arresting Blacks way more often than anyone else.

When I built a crime map using the gathered APD data, a few areas stood out: Downtown, grocery stores, and the 12^th^ and Chicon corner.

Downtown dominated the map, in general. About 11% of all APD arrests happened around 6^th^ Street. Drinking type-crimes ruled. Public intoxication was the number-one single charge. Warrant arrests were the second most common followed by DWI, sitting/lying on sidewalk, urinating in public, possession of marijuana, and violating misc. city ordinances. As a city, we’re spending a shit load of money to let all these people get fucked up downtown. Is it worth it?

Grocery stores turned out to be a huge generator of arrests. The single address with the most arrests was a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Norwood Park Blvd., just northeast of where I-35 and 183 meet. Over 900 people were arrested at this store alone. The Riverside HEB was also on the top-five list of arrest addresses. Mostly everyone was arrested for theft and a lot of them got possession charges tacked on. But we can’t talk about possession arrests without mentioning our next spot on the map.

The few blocks surrounding 12^th^ and Chicon are notorious for prostitution, drugs, and violence, but the arrest reality shows more of a disaster-type situation. Police are arresting people for anything possible and they’re arresting mostly Blacks. You can get a sense of activity on the corner by reading through the list of common charges: possession of drug paraphernalia, warrant, possession of marijuana, possession of a controlled substance or narcotic, violation of a city ordinance, pedestrian in the roadway, driving while license invalid, blasting car stereos, and drinking in public. The police made 902 arrests (again, mostly Black) in the 18 months of Incident Reports, and none of them seem to be helping.

Over half of these arrests were of the same person more than once. One guy got arrested 19 times in those 18 months – all on that block. What the hell is going on in a system where people are being arrested over and over, and then getting busted in the exact same place again? People have been calling for stricter sentences for violent crimes in this area, but if you actually look at what people are being arrested for, it’s nonviolent crimes.

It’s not pretty when you’re driving by randomly and see two thugs slugging it out in the middle of the street and homeless-looking folks watching from the sidewalks. But if low-level arrests haven’t been the solution here in the past, why would we think more would be the answer of the future?

Policies like throwing more time at people arrested in these areas are going to hurt more minorities, and stack the odds of being arrested against them even more. It’s not like Whites aren’t buying cocaine, heroin, and weed. They’re just not doing it on 12^th^ and Chicon and they’re not getting caught, booked, and jailed as often for it.

Step Two: Booking and Pre-Trial Release

Once you’re arrested, you’re brought down to the jail and you sit there. You have three options for getting out. Sometimes a cash bond will be set – this is the amount of money you need to pay as collateral for you showing up to court. If you show up, you’ll get your money back. If you don’t, they keep it and put out a warrant for your arrest. You can also pay a bondsman to bail you out. This is called a surety bond. The bondsman will pay your cash bond for you, but will charge you a percent of it. If you don’t show up, they will come after you because it’s their money at stake. But in Travis County, personal bonds, where your word is your collateral, are by far the most common.

Travis County Pretrial Services is in charge of overseeing the whole process of letting people out of jail before their trials (called pretrial release, bonding/bailed out, etc.). They publish a little information on their website about how often people are screened and granted a personal bond. But it’s useless to me because it’s not broken down at all.

Luckily the Travis County Clerk’s Misdemeanor Court database holds bond information. According to this data, White defendants got any form of bond the most often (65% of the time) followed by Hispanics (63%) and Blacks (56%).

So minority defendants, especially Black ones, don’t get a pretrial release as often as Whites. But why is this? Pretrial Release is an inexact science. Basically a lot of guesswork goes into figuring out whether or not a defendant will show up for their court date. The County never really knows if someone is going to jump bond, so they look at things like prior criminal history as an indicator.

The APD arrest data shows that minorities, Blacks especially, are arrested way more often than Whites. If prior record is a major deciding factor of whether or not someone gets a pretrial release, it makes sense that Blacks get out the least. Not only is jailing someone before their trial basically punishment of the innocent, but this also has a huge impact down the line. People who get out of jail before their court dates get better case outcomes.

Visualization: Average Sentence length by Crime & Race

This chart is based on information downloaded from the Travis County Misdemeanor Court’s case search tool. The bars represent how much time, on average, someone from each race was sentenced for each crime. The averages were calculated for all cases with offense dates starting on January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2011. Active cases weren’t included here. Click on the dates below to see a breakdown for that particular year.

2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2006-2011

Step Three: Sentencing

Sentencing is the symbol of our entire system. We’re all technically equals, so we should see similar sentences. This isn’t the case, though. When I tallied up the jail time averages by race and ethnicity, Blacks and Hispanics got more time in jail, overall, between 2006 and 2012.

In the 202,446 misdemeanor cases I’d downloaded from the court’s website, Whites got an average sentence of 15.2 days, Hispanics got 22.1, and Blacks got 21.4. My initial thought was “are judges just sentencing unfairly?”

These numbers included all punishments, jail or not. In other words, if one group got more probation/dismissals instead of jail than other groups, then that group would have a lower average sentence length. When I accounted only for cases where jail time was handed out, the differences evened out and all groups got almost exactly the same punishments.

This confused me, so I contacted as many law firms as I could for answers. What was the cause of this racial disparity? What am I overlooking? Nobody really wanted to talk about these questions publicly, but I did manage to find a few who would, as long as I kept their names anonymous.

These lawyers didn’t think race was a factor in sentencing. They thought this for a couple reasons, one being their personal experience. They just didn’t see judges sentencing based on race. The second reason being that at this low of a level in the courts, the cases mostly end in an agreement between the defense and the prosecution. The judge just signs off on agreements and pushes cases along.

In my experience, this is how most minor crimes go down in court. When I was in trouble, I showed up to my date and found a room packed full of other people who’d done even dumber stuff than I did. I talked to the prosecutor, who’d probably had five seconds to look through my case. She offered me a lesser charge, a small fine, and a few months of probation. She explained that while the judge technically could sentence me more, most of the time he just OKs the agreements … just be respectful. She was right. The judge gave me a lecture and signed off on our little agreement. I watched that same thing happen to fifty people before me.

I don’t know why the prosecutor chose to deal with me in the way she did. I mean, logically, it makes no sense to “throw the book” at someone with little criminal history, but her reasoning was totally in the dark. Even if I wanted to find out how she came up with the fine and probation, there’d be no way for me to do it.

I analyzed all the misdemeanor cases by outcome and saw that the lawyers were right. The largest group of cases ended in a “no contest” plea bargain. This is where the defendant agrees to a punishment without actually admitting guilt. This protects him or her from getting sued, but fucks the person’s life in almost exactly the same way as a guilty plea. The second most common outcome was dismissal. A lot of them were dismissed “pending further investigation” or “in the interest of justice,” but the reasons behind these identifiers are vague at best.

A lot of cases were “12:45’d” which, after some digging, turns out to be a weird technicality for people who are charged with multiple crimes. Let’s say I was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and for evading the police. I could get one of them dropped by admitting guilt to it and having that guilt considered in the sentencing of the other charge.

Deferral was the third most popular outcome. These are usually an agreement by the prosecution and defense and usually involve doing rehab or taking classes. Probation, where you don’t go to jail as long as you stay out of trouble for a year or two, was the next most common case outcome. These seem better on the surface, but probation is usually time-consuming and very expensive. According to a lawyer friend, a lot of people prefer to do some time and have it be over with than spend the next few years paying huge fines and jumping through hoops.

Broken down by race and ethnicity, Black cases were most likely (48%) to end in jail or a fine. Hispanic cases ended in a punishment like this 42% of the time compared to Whites’ 35%. Blacks and Hispanics were both 6% less likely to get their cases dismissed than Whites. Deferral programs were given to White defendants between one and two percent more often than Blacks and Hispanics.

When I first collected the misdemeanor case data, I only collected information on closed cases. That worked well for all outcomes except for probation, where a case could still be open if someone jumped bail. So I went back to get all of the cases, closed or open, and noticed that a lot of the racial and ethnic fields in the data had been changed on the Travis County Clerk’s site. Cases where someone had been identified as Hispanic were suddenly changed to “Not-Specified.” I’m not sure why this is, but it screwed up my confidence in analyzing the probation ratios.

Either way, minorities are still getting shittier case outcomes. I’d love to dig further into why, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of paperwork to follow beyond this. If the judge isn’t influencing most of the cases, then it must be a combination of the prosecutor and defense. And while the judge is held to a lot of scrutiny, the prosecutor is not. In cases like this, there are hardly any details to follow.

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d shown up to my court date and called the prosecutor a piece of shit. Would I have ended up with a worse punishment just for being rude? Maybe she would’ve flat out refused to deal with me, told the judge what I did, and let him fuck me over. Is being polite an integral part of the justice system? If these are possibilities, then what’s stopping prosecutors from playing “hardball” with minorities or people they don’t like, maybe without even realizing it?

APD Headquarters

Caption: The Austin Police Department headquarters on East 8th Street. We made sure the photographer looked as suspicious as possible when he took this nighttime photo.

Race, Crime, and Information

The lawyers I talked to believed that poverty was a major player in the disparities here. According to a Health and Human Services study from 2011, 23% of both Blacks and Hispanics lived in poverty. Only 9% of Whites did. It was tempting to label this the cause of our racial and ethnic disparities, but then there’s the case of Asians who have a 14% poverty rate, but have an extremely low arrest rate and better case outcomes.

When I was writing this article, I’d talk about it with friends and coworkers. A lot of them had the same, fair questions. Are minorities committing more crime? Why? Or are police just picking on them?

Ever since men picked up criminal skulls and measured them for links to antisocial behavior, we’ve argued over why certain groups have different crime rates. And even though we laugh about bullshit like Phrenology now, over a hundred years later the same questions still haven’t been answered.

Research starting in the ‘60s focused on discovering what about minority groups caused crime. Early ideas focused on things like IQ and temperament, but these were thrown out. There was no evidence for that. Theories about inherent racial differences fell flat, too. Race – based mostly on skin tone – is a fucking awful indicator of almost anything. Any anthropologist will tell you that there’s as much if not more variation within races as there is between. Ideas about racial groups accepting violence weren’t consistent with findings that people from all races and social statuses tend to feel the same way about violence and crime. Nobody wants to be assaulted or robbed.

At the same time, researchers trying to find evidence for system-wide discrimination at the sentencing level also couldn’t find anything. The “No Discrimination Theory” is still in tact – there is no evidence of directly racial bias in our courts. But this doesn’t address the influence of indirectly racial factors like socioeconomic status or broken families (possibly due to the criminal justice system itself).

Overall, a lot of research is still needed to find the reasons why minorities get arrested and imprisoned so often. If there’s anything I’ve seen from just our local criminal justice system, it’s that every new bit of information brings up as many questions as it does answers.

While researching this article, I’ve seen minorities arrested more than Whites, minorities fighting cases from jail more often, minorities getting worse case outcomes and worse average punishments. I’ve been able to uncover how the system treats people, but not the reasons why. There are a lot hidden layers in the criminal justice system and many decisions made at each level. Beyond what I’ve dug up here, there doesn’t seem to be much of a paper trail to answer these questions further.

Figuring out how minority groups do in the criminal justice system has been the major question in criminology and sociology of the past 50 years. If our local government was serious about getting the important information out to us, they’d have released this arrest and court data long ago. It’s not like it would take a lot of work to do – the information already exists in an easy-to-publish format. I’ve already grabbed it.

Maybe next time they revamp their sites and throw around big ideas about openness and transparency, they could actually put work into making their bureaucracy more “open” and “transparent.” And not just with talk. I mean with actual uncensored data. That would show they give a fuck. Until that happens, all we get are some watered down lists, a ton of filler, and a bunch of bullshit quotes.

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