Creating a People-First Court Data Framework

Charlotte S. Alexander, Georgia Institute of Technology
Lauren Sudeall, Vanderbilt University Law School

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Most court data are maintained--and most empirical court research is conducted--from the institutional vantage point of the courts. Using the case as the common unit of measurement, data-driven court research typically focuses on metrics such as the size of court dockets, the speed of case processing, judicial decision-making within cases, and the frequency of case events occurring within or resulting from the court system.

This Article sets forth a methodological framework for reconceptualizing and restructuring court data as “people-first”--centered not on the perspective of courts as institutions but on the people who interact with the court system. We reorganize case-level data around the individual, identifying and analyzing the touchpoints that individuals have had over time with a range of different courts. In doing so, we invoke language as a signaling device to suggest a different, more intentional way to think about courts and the way we study their structure, processes, and impact.

The pilot research study that serves as the foundation for this Article is the first of its kind to apply a people-first approach to a data set that includes both criminal and civil state court records drawn from a random sample of 885 people in Fulton County, Georgia, between 2016 and 2020. Our methodology and findings provide a new perspective on the interactions between individuals and the courts and generate important new data relevant to a range of research areas. This approach and its results also represent a key step forward in expanding the application of a people-first approach to decentralized court systems, including those at the state and local levels. In taking this step, we empower and encourage researchers and policymakers at all levels to center those who experience the impact of court systems rather than focusing exclusively on the systems themselves.