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Digging into data on drug and court injustice

By Meredith McGrath

In order to hold officials accountable and shine light on injustices, journalists are digging deep into the intricate data surrounding the drug world and court systems.

Ed Silverman from STAT, Teri Sforza from the Orange County Register and Michael Braga from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shared their stories of investigations, shed light on the hidden dangers in data and gave tips for finding stories of your own during their CAR Conference session.

Globally, getting access to medicines at affordable prices is an issue for patients. Drug companies are charging outrageous prices for life-saving drugs, and governments are wrestling with how to respond. Ed Silverman provided several websites to help journalists in their reporting on Big Pharma:

  • Data source on campaign finance, super PACs, industries and lobbying from the Center for Responsive Politics
  • Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Clearinghouse: Stanford Law School’s database, document repository and analytics supplier for information relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
  • Open Payments: Run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; tracks payments made by drug and medical device companies to physicians and teaching hospitals
  • PACER: Public Access to Court Electronic Records: A federal electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts; requires an account and charges a fee
  • SCOTUS blog: A resource for tracking what’s filed in the Supreme Court; good for archival and ongoing litigation searches
  • USCF: Drug Industry documents: An archive of documents created by major pharmaceutical companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales and scientific research from the University of California, San Francisco
  • Securities and Exchange Commission: Source for financial information; useful for providing sales on individual products
  • Database of private and publicly funded clinical studies
  • Food and Drug Administration: Identifies violations, recalls, manufacturing issues and marketing materials that cross lines
  • ORA FOIA Electronic Reading Room: Displays copies of Office of Regulatory Affairs records
  • Drug Information Services: Track drug shortages 

In Southern California, Teri Sforza and her colleagues found that broke and homeless addicts are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to addiction treatment centers. Treatment facilities are recruiting addicts from across the country, bilking their insurance companies and sending them back into the streets without curing them. When investigating this in your own state, ask for data on citations issued to licensed substance abuse treatment facilities. Ask for data on complaints received and get data on deaths in licensed treatment facilities.

In California, many deaths happen in “non-medical detox.” Other states don’t allow this. Figure out what your state’s approach is.

Across the country in Florida, Michael Braga and his team found through data analysis that black defendants get harsher punishment for drug crimes than their white counterparts and far less access to treatment for their addictions.

The findings are being published in a series of installments and derived from exploration of two databases: the Offender Based Transaction System, which contains more than 80 million records, and a database from the Department of Corrections. OBTS showed that bias was rampant in Florida’s criminal justice system, but there were flaws in this analysis because the team wasn’t comparing apples to apples.

While it clearly showed that blacks are arrested and convicted more often than whites and spend longer in lockup, there was no way to make sure that black and white defendants were being treated equally. There was no perfect way to ensure that disparities weren’t caused by blacks having longer rap sheets or by having committed more serious crimes, so the team turned to the Department of Corrections data to help, which ended up being riddled with errors, but the team didn’t realize until after publication.

Ultimately, they learned from this project that data is seductive and dangerous. The bigger and more complicated it is, the more you want to use it. There’s no assurance that data provided by county clerks and government organizations is error-free. Take your time with data and don’t rush. Carefully examine what might be causing disparities. Through your reporting, you can get the criminal justice system in your state to be more fair and blunt.

Meredith McGrath is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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