U.S. forced to open electronic case files

A lawsuit brought against the Justice Department by a nonprofit agency has led the department to release information about federal prosecutions that it previously would not make public.

DOJ's case management system stores information on criminal and civil investigations and lawsuits. The records show what types of prosecutions federal prosecutors are bringing, how successful the government has been in prosecuting the cases, and the length of sentences and monetary awards in cases the government has won.

Previously, the government only would reveal select pieces of this information. But a lawsuit filed by Public Citizen, a public advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Syracuse, N.Y., has led to the department's agreement to release the information.

TRAC plans to use the data to examine in detail how DOJ and different prosecutorial groups within the department decide what cases to pursue and how well the department performs in court.

"The release of these databases marks a milestone in the fight for more public access to federal documents," said Mike Tankersley, a Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney. "This lawsuit affirms the public's right to access complex databases that show how public servants are performing their work."

The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of New York after DOJ refused TRAC access to case management data from U.S. Attorneys' offices in Minnesota and Kentucky.

TRAC, a research center affiliated with Syracuse University, gathers, distributes and analyzes data on the activities of federal enforcement and regulatory agencies.

Susan Long, TRAC co-director, said that federal officials for too long have wielded "their vast powers with little outside oversight. The promise of this data is that it will vastly improve the ability of the public to examine the fairness and effectiveness of a steadily growing part of government."

The department agreed to deliver to TRAC data from Kentucky and Minnesota first, and then make available information from all of the 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices nationwide.

Long, who also is a statistician and faculty member at Syracuse, said DOJ shipped her a large box with three computer tapes of data from the U.S. Attorneys' offices in Minnesota and Kentucky.

"I was in data heaven," she said.

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