MLIS team shines light on criminal justice records

By Kara Eagens Thursday, May 30, 2019

In theory, information on misconduct in prisons and policing is supposed to be available to the public. The reality, however, is that such documentation is largely inaccessible due to the organization of public records. Three dedicated iSchool students have decided to address this information gap with their Capstone project.

Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) students (pictured, from left) Mariah McGregor, Angela Gonzalez-Curci and Stef Clark are working on a metadata schema for the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which focuses on prisoner rights and legal issues surrounding prisons and corrections institutions.

HRDC’s Seattle office has asked several states for public records of financial settlements related to law enforcement misconduct within prisons. The MLIS students have been tasked with developing a cohesive method of organizing the information into a database so that lawyers, incarcerated people, academics and activists can easily access that information in one place. According to HRDC, this is the first time detailed data on the issue is being centralized.

“It’s incredibly ambitious,” said McGregor, whose studies center on reference and business service. “We’re really seeing how these correctional justice systems are interacting with the public and having an impact on society and communities.”

Capstone projects serve as the culminating learning experience at the iSchool, where students apply the knowledge and skills gained in class to real-world information problems. The team’s sponsor and public records manager for HRDC, Michele Dillon, described the main objectives of the project.

“Our goals are to provide a tool for the public and lawmakers to examine the financial impact of policing and prisons nationwide as well as to find patterns in disparities between settlements for similar cases,” she said.

So, what exactly is metadata?

“Quite literally, it’s information about the information,” said Gonzalez-Curci, whose interests lie in how law and data interact, and how legal information has transformed with the changing digital age. “You want to be able to describe the piece of information, but all the underlying policy issues around it too.”

This includes basic information like the name of the defendant in a legal dispute, the case number, reason for filing and type of document, but also data on how to use and manage the documents. The metadata schema organizes these pieces into subcategories and designs searchable terms that can be pulled up in a database to easily locate the relevant information.

Establishing uniform definitions for these searchable terms is crucial to making the metadata schema consistent and accessible to a wide array of users.

“Hopefully we can establish patterns and see where there is a need for activism."

Clark, whose focus is on teen librarianship in public libraries, said, “Some of it is going to be a mini-dictionary of legal terms so that people who may not be law-savvy will be able to understand what phrases we use.”

The team is hoping its work will contribute to greater transparency in police misconduct complaints and court judgments. This is especially important for incarcerated people, as it could open pathways to seeking compensation for harm done to them by the criminal justice system.

“Hopefully we can establish patterns and see where there is a need for activism, for change, for lobbying for better programs and better facilities” McGregor said.

Additionally, settlement and judgment information show how much money law enforcement agencies are spending to settle disputes out of court.

“That money is taxpayer money,” Gonzalez-Curci pointed out. “How much taxpayer money to going to settling cases instead of receiving actual judgments in the court of law for these complaints? How much money is the average person spending to make sure things don’t go to court?”

So far, the students have received 9,000 documents to process and categorize, but they have also encountered several challenges in accessing documentation and sharing information.

For one, different states have different definitions of what classifies a document as a public record. New York, for example, has very strict regulations around police information, so accessing documentation on police malpractice in that state, and states with similar regulations, is particularly difficult.

Factors such as file format, the physical location of the documents and the schedule of retention can present barriers of their own. The individual managing the documents can also prevent access to the information.

“Basically, you have to catch someone on the right day,” Clark said. “You can go request a public record and sometimes it’s dependent on whether you find the person at the desk in a good mood.”

The other problem they have encountered is whether they can share the information they find.

“We’re making something open that people don’t want made open,” Gonzalez-Curci said. “That’s an incredible challenge to make sure you are toeing the line to get enough information out there that people can access, while making sure the project isn’t going to be shut down.”

All three MLIS students credit the opportunities provided by the iSchool for giving them the skill sets and tools needed to carry out this project. They believe the coursework and faculty guidance has prepared them to create a clear, socially conscious outline of the metadata schema so that the next group that picks up the project can easily move forward.

“The iSchool is really pushing toward ensuring that there is more social justice-minded work incorporated throughout the curriculum — from research methods to cataloging to management and everything in between,” McGregor said.

She also emphasized how helpful their professors have been in supporting their project. “They have us incorporate our Capstone into assignments on data curation and preservation and encourage us to apply this in a practical setting,” she said.

The deliverable is modeled on a schema for video games that Clark learned about through an MLIS class. “I got to take Jin Ha Lee’s class working with VGMS, which is the video game metadata schema she’s been working on for a while with the Gamer Group. We’re actually able to use that format.”

The metadata schema is only the beginning. Clark, Gonzalez-Curci and McGregor envision collaboration with Master of Science in Information Management and Informatics students in designing the database and tagging the information. They also believe the perspectives of academics in law and criminology could be very useful in deciding how the data can be organized.

“We’re trying to set the foundations for much larger work” Gonzalez-Curci said. “We’re really hoping that this project will gain more attention so that we can work with other partners at the UW.”

For more information on their project with HRDC, check out the team’s presentation at the iSchool Capstone Event on campus Tuesday, June 4.