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Temporary PFAs: Should stats matter to judges?

Written by Brandie Kessler, York Daily Record | Mar 25, 2016 1:00 PM
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Data can tell you when something is going wrong and help you find ways to do things better.

(York) -- Some say statistical data can start conversations and improve aspects of judicial systems, including those in York County and Pennsylvania.

Data "can tell you when something is going wrong," said James P. Lynch, the former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the U.S. Department of Justice. Lynch thinks data, especially about the way the judicial system operates, can be powerful and ought to be more plentiful than it is.

But two judges said they don't want statistics to change how judges rule -- that judges' decisions should be made based on the particulars of a given case.

When the York Daily Record interviewed York County President Judge Joseph C. Adams in December for an investigative story about temporary Protection from Abuse orders, Adams said he wasn't really interested in seeing the statistical data the news organization had compiled and analyzed.

"I just, I want to do my job based on what's in front of me," Adams said. "When you're constantly looking at statistics for your own self, you run into that potential problem of try(ing) to chase a certain number."

James M. McMaster, administrative judge of family court in Bucks County, said judges aren't concerned about what their percentages were for granting or denying temporary PFAs.

"Quite frankly, we think we do what we believe is right in ... the cases in front of us," McMaster said. "And what happens in another county and what their percentages are is irrelevant, as far as I'm concerned, as to whether we are handling our caseload properly."

'The public has a right to know'

Lynch, who is now a professor and the chair of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, said he's been building and working with statistical systems for 30 years.

There is a wealth of information in some areas within the criminal justice system, he said.

"But we know very little about charging and all these sort of other court processes that don't get a lot of sunshine," Lynch said.

The YDR's investigation and analysis found that statewide in 2014, judges denied requests for a temporary PFA about 12 percent of the time, according to Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts data. In York County, judges denied about 44 percent of them.

And individual judges in the county varied widely in how often they denied and granted temporary PFAs in 2014.

A temporary PFA is a no-contact order for the alleged victim of domestic violence while they wait approximately 10 days to have a final hearing before a judge for a protection order that could last up to three years.

In December, Adams said statistics and data are good for looking at changes in the caseload, and knowing how many judges need to be assigned to the family division. But, that's where he drew the line. Judges' decisions ought to be based on the law, not percentages.

Adams said on March 23 that he didn't have any additional comment to make.

Lynch said the statistical information the YDR compiled could allow people to ask questions.

"The public has a right to know," Lynch said. "And no one should be beyond performance evaluation. If not a person per se, than an institution."

Kim Nieves, director of the Research & Statistics Department of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said statisticians aren't wedded to an outcome, and that's not necessarily the point of gathering statistical information.

"It's aimed at starting conversations," she said. "We (statisticians) don't have opinions about it or judgments about it. We try to put the numbers out and let the people to whom it matters decide."

Lynch said data helps us learn where we should look to make improvements.

"It's not that someone's doing something wrong, it's saying to people, we should look at these things," he said. "I think more and more you see people understanding that data helps you find a way to do things better."

More data is better

Although statisticians don't have opinions on the data they're collecting, Nieves said, they know that the conversations that data starts can result in real change.

The Civil Inventory Project is an example of something that's come out of the data Nieves' office gathers and analyzes. Through data analysis, the office found that some state judicial districts had a backlog of old cases. Many outdated, irrelevant cases were able to be purged, which improved efficiently, Nieves said.

The YDR's investigation into temporary PFAs published in February included information that had not been compiled previously.

Nieves was familiar with the report and said it started conversations in York County.

The YDR analysis looked at a few things, including county-to-county statistics. It found that Bucks County used to have the highest temporary PFA denial rate in the state, about 59 percent between 2010 and 2013. In 2014, that rate decreased to about 15 percent.

McMaster, the administrative judge of family court there, and an advocate both attributed the change to a 2013 decision by the state Superior Court that changed how requests for temporary PFAs are handled, and not to statistics.

The YDR analysis also looked at how individual judges in York County rule on temporary PFA requests. It showed that in 2014, some judges granted about 30 percent of the requests for temporary PFAs, while others granted more than 70 percent of those requests.

Although the statistical variation among York County judges was interesting, Lynch said, that variation doesn't necessarily indicate a problem.

For example, he said, it's possible that some judges got cases that were more complex than others.

The YDR's analysis also examined some of the petitions the judges ruled on in 2014, and the analysis raised questions about the consistency of the judges' rulings on temporary PFA cases.

Some 2014 petitions with similar allegations were granted, while others were denied. Sometimes when physical abuse was alleged, the judge didn't grant protection. And sometimes when no physical abuse was alleged, the judge granted the temporary PFA. Sometimes one judge ruled one way with one petition, and then ruled another way with another petition, even if the allegations in the petitions were similar.

Lynch said courts, in general "have not been friendly to statistics."

"They want to be unbiased, but at the same time they are a public bureaucracy, they deserve to be as accountable as the police," Lynch said.

The key to that accountability is data, he said, and a more frequent and consistent availability of data.

"The only way you get to know things like (how judges rule on cases) is by having routine data on these kinds of decisions," Lynch said.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

Published in News, York

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