The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and Its Corresponding Data Boon: Issues With Pandemic-Related Data From Criminal Justice Organizations

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(4) 543 –568
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862211027993
The 2020 Coronavirus
Pandemic and Its
Corresponding Data Boon:
Issues With Pandemic-
Related Data From Criminal
Justice Organizations
Danielle Wallace1, Jason Walker1, Jake Nelson2,
Sherry Towers3, John Eason4,
and Tony H. Grubesic2
Public organizations, including institutions in the U.S. criminal justice (CJ) system,
have been rapidly releasing information pertaining to COVID-19. Even CJ institutions
typically reticent to share information, like private prisons, have released vital
COVID-19 information. The boon of available pandemic-related data, however,
is not without problems. Unclear conceptualizations, stakeholders’ influence on
data collection and release, and a lack of experience creating public dashboards on
health data are just a few of the issues plaguing CJ institutions surrounding releasing
COVID-19 data. In this article, we detail issues that institutions in each arm of the
CJ system face when releasing pandemic-related data. We conclude with a set of
recommendations for researchers seeking to use the abundance of publicly available
data on the effects of the pandemic.
criminal justice systems, data, COVID-19, pandemic, pandemic-related data
1Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA
2The University of Texas at Austin, USA
3Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany
4University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA
Corresponding Author:
Danielle Wallace, Center for Violence Prevention and Community Solutions, Arizona State University,
411 N. Central Ave., Room 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004, USA.
1027993CCJXXX10.1177/10439862211027993Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeWallace et al.
544 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 37(4)
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an extraordinary moment for the public availabil-
ity of data on population health and infectious disease. Health departments across the
world released copious amounts of data on the state of the pandemic, including
COVID-19 infection, testing, deaths, and hospitalization rates, as well as the avail-
ability of intensive care unit beds. This massive release of data has not been limited to
data published by health organizations; organizations in the U.S. criminal justice sys-
tem have also released substantial amounts of data related to how the pandemic is
affecting their agencies, staff, and the populations they serve.
This avalanche of data does not arrive without difficulties, such as the standardiza-
tion of data reporting and collection methods. Many of these problems are common
when using administrative data, such as the involvement of stakeholders in shaping
how the data are collected and released. In fact, the data might have been compiled for
purposes that are not necessarily compatible with research efforts. During the month
of July 2020, for example, in the United States, President Trump mandated that hospi-
tals send COVID-19 data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services
(DHHS). Prior to this, that information was being sent to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC; Stolberg, 2020). Health experts decried the move, con-
cerned that shifts in warehousing practices for these data would change how they
would be released (Stolberg, 2020). Nearly a month later, in August, the Trump
Administration reversed its decision (Whelan, 2020b) and again allowed the CDC to
be the organization charged with collating hospital data after many reported delays and
data inconsistencies (Jercich, 2020; Whelan, 2020a), as well as increasing concern by
state and local officials over needing timely data to fight the pandemic. The intention
of shifting data warehousing from the CDC to the DHHS was twofold: the DHHS was
concerned the CDC was not flexible enough to collect new data, and to collect richer,
more inclusive data coming from hospitals. Yet, the switch, mid-pandemic, simply
created confusion and delays in hospitals’ reporting ultimately hindering the release of
valuable and timely pandemic-related data (Whelan, 2020a). This example of stake-
holder intrusion in data collection and reporting plays out at the state, county, and local
levels in the United States and internationally. Given the speed at which it was gener-
ated and released as well as the politicization of the pandemic internationally, salient
public data on COVID-19, while incredibly valuable to researchers in all fields, come
with caveats. This includes the need to assess the quality, content, validity, and reli-
ability of these data. In the U.S. criminal justice system, for example, the pandemic
may have permanently changed how organizations function on a day-to-day basis. In
turn, this affects the data these organizations generate—whether the data are explicitly
related to the pandemic.
As scholars begin to think about researching how the pandemic has shaped the U.S.
criminal justice system, it is critical to understand the data that are available and what
are potential data limitations. Moreover, the pandemic has reshaped daily life so dras-
tically, that the quality of the data emanating from criminal justice agencies all over
the world needs to be thoughtfully considered. Agencies have face rapid and drastic

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