Harnessing Data from North Carolina's Jails to Inform Effective Policies (2020-2021)


Nearly one-third of individuals incarcerated in North Carolina each year are confined in one of the state’s 96 local jails. Because there is no standardized, centralized mechanism for collecting information from local jails, it is difficult to characterize this significant portion of the state’s correctional population.

In contrast, state prisons are operated through centralized administrative systems, generating data that are regularly analyzed and made public. Prison data are used to identify population trends, target resources to inmates and facilities and evaluate correctional policies and programs. For instance, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety was able to analyze administrative correctional data to identify probation revocations as a primary driver of prison populations, design Justice Reinvestment Act policies to reduce probation revocations and evaluate their effect on correctional spending and incarceration rates.

This type of data-driven policymaking for local jail populations is currently impossible in North Carolina, but a growing number of states have developed their own data collection mechanisms along with legislation to ensure sustained implementation. Most statewide databases collect information on population counts and demographics, jail staffing and budgets, healthcare utilization, morbidity and mortality. This type of data collection and analysis can be an important factor in policy innovation and research on a state’s correctional landscape.

Project Description

This project team will explore the utility of a statewide jail database for North Carolina.

First, team members will describe the content, context and uses of statewide jail databases to develop an inventory of how states are monitoring their local jails. The team will conduct a thorough review of existing databases in the U.S. by searching state websites, reviewing public documents and interviewing officials in each state correctional office about the history and usage of their databases.

Second, the team will demonstrate the potential of standardized jail data to answer questions about demography, health and public policy. Using two premier statewide jail databases – the California Jail Profile Survey and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards – team members will investigate how standardized jail data can be used to understand a state’s correctional landscape. This data analysis will be both descriptive and predictive.

Third, team members will assess the potential benefits and uses of a North Carolina statewide jail database by engaging public stakeholders working in state and local governmental departments, jail research and administration and local communities and advocacy groups. This work will rely on an interdisciplinary advisory panel of experts that will meet with the team to inform project activities, provide feedback on methods and provide an interpretive community for the team’s findings.

Through these combined efforts, the team will produce a wish list of data points for a potential North Carolina statewide database, mapped to potential public uses and users of the information.

Anticipated Outputs

Database characterizing statewide jail data collection efforts in all 50 states; report summarizing database content; profiles of states with well-developed data collections programs; peer-reviewed publication; policy brief; dataset for future funding and jail survey development


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Complete data security training; compile advisory panel; complete IRB approval; review existing jail databases; create database characterizing jail data collection in all 50 states; interview state officials who collect and use jail data; complete database report
  • Spring 2021: Develop analysis plan and carry out analysis for California and Texas datasets; begin papers for peer review; continue stakeholder interviews; complete policy brief for North Carolina government officials

This Team in the News

In-Depth Look at Wilson Center-Affiliated Bass Connections Projects

Duke Law Faculty, Students Tackling Diverse Interdisciplinary Research Projects through Bass Connections


Image: Durham County Jail viewed from the railroad, by Ildar Sagdejev, licensed under CC BY 2.0


Team Leaders

  • Brandon Garrett, Duke Law
  • Catherine Grodensky, Sanford School of Public Policy–Ph.D. Student
  • Ruth Wygle, Trinity - Sociology-PHD

/graduate Team Members

  • Nicole Calhoun, Nursing-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Lucy Callard, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Alex Chao, Computer Science (AB)
  • Kalley Huang
  • Brianna Joyce, Public Policy Studies (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Benjamin Keschner
  • Spencer LaFata, Public Policy Studies (AB), Psychology (AB2)
  • Katherine LoBue, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Birk McCaffrey
  • Effie Mehbod
  • Albert Sun