justice scales in front of a row of law books

Court admin plans to stop publishing a criminal case dataset. We’re asking them to keep it open.

When a criminal case is docketed in one of North Carolina’s 100 counties, clerks enter dozens of data points about each case into a centralized system called the Automated/Criminal Infractions System (ACIS). The data include basic demographics about each defendant (e.g. race, age, birthdate) and the disposition of each case (e.g. plea, verdict, dismissal). ACIS shows whether the defendant posted a bond and how much it was. It lists the trial dates.

ACIS tells the story of every criminal matter processed in the State of North Carolina. Currently, every member of the public can find information on each individual case at a terminal in their county courthouse. And until recently, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) provided an “extract” of the data from all 100 counties to the public free of charge.

For decades, reporters have used the statistical extract data to tell stories about trends in policing, criminal case dispositions, and the interplay between race and gender and the mechanics of the criminal justice system. That data will no longer be provided for the public good. Instead, the AOC will ask journalists to enroll in the Remote Public Access Program, which costs hundreds of dollars per month and requires signing a licensing agreement, to get high-level criminal case data.

Citing the Second Chance Act, which passed the General Assembly in 2021, the AOC declined to provide the statistical extract, which it published every six months, when requested by reporters from the News & Observer. “In order to protect the interests of persons qualifying for expunctions, the NCAOC has retired the ACIS statistical extract,” the AOC wrote in an unsigned letter to the N&O.

The ACIS criminal case history extract is the lifeblood of rigorous, data-driven reporting about the criminal justice system in North Carolina. The raw records that funnel into ACIS are each presumptively public. As with many other records that raise privacy concerns, it is incumbent upon the government to redact or withhold records that should be withheld under laws like the Second Chance Act. Any policy that withholds mountains of useful information from public view and scrutiny should be examined and critiqued.

On that basis, the NC Open Government Coalition joined representatives from four North Carolina media organizations urging the AOC to reverse course on its plans to limit access to the ACIS criminal extract. Read our joint letter below.

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