When you value something, you pay close attention. That’s why you know where your wallet is. And it’s why Wal-Mart spares no expense to track the location of a pair of sneakers, from the time it leaves the factory in China until it passes the cash register in Abilene. But we don’t do the same for children. We send vulnerable boys and girls into bureaucracies so big and tough they bring adults to their knees and then fail to track and measure what happens next. The goal of PROTECT’s Sunlight Project is never to put academic studies on shelves. We aim to motivate public servants to do better for children by shining the bright sunlight of accountability.
In 2009, the National Association to Protect Children selected one state to use as a laboratory for innovation on our Sunlight Project. We chose Virginia, where we had just passed landmark legislation requiring the courts and social service agencies to make data available to the public. The new system was called the Virginia Child Protection System (VCPS).
In 2012, the National Association to Protect Children issued our first report, focusing on judges who were facing reappointment hearings (in Virginia, judges are chosen by lawmakers, not the voters). Armed with a huge amount of data obtained through Freedom of Information requests, we called it the Virginia Judicial Accountability Project. Our goal was a modest one: arm lawmakers (the “voters” in this case) with factual, accurate data on how the judges up for review had been sentencing perpetrators of crimes against children. We issued a second Judicial Accountability report in 2013 and 2014.
Some legislators told us they appreciated the information, noting that they – much like voters across America – had been making decisions using little or no objective information for years. Others bridled, irritated that the status quo was being challenged. Judges protested our reports during their hearings, sometimes joined by prosecutors. Yet, no one challenged the accuracy of the data we presented.
While our reports clearly sent shockwaves throughout the judicial and prosecutor communities, finger-pointing was going in all directions (a sure sign of success). Some judges shrugged off responsibility for shockingly light sentences by blaming them on prosecutor plea bargains. Others argued that their light sentences were “within the sentencing guidelines,” and so were justified. Legislators – many who genuinely believed the “tough” sentences they had been writing into law were actually being used – called for studies of sentencing guidelines. Meanwhile, we were getting better at decoding criminal justice system data and knowing how to use it to motivate change.