TRAC: Data about Federal Law Enforcement

Program for Legal Tech and Design - Trac

TRAC, or The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, is a huge amount of data on federal enforcement of criminal law, immigration & other matters. This is a great source of raw data to draw into your projects, apps, or reports.

TRAC describes itself as “a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University.”

It also has some visualizations of data — particularly around immigration enforcement.

Program for Legal Tech and Design - Trac Immigration Data 1 Program for Legal Tech and Design - Trac Immigration Data 2

 

TRAC’s Purpose

The purpose of TRAC is to provide the American people — and institutions of oversight such as Congress, news organizations, public interest groups, businesses, scholars and lawyers — with comprehensive information about staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, what are the agencies and prosecutors actually doing? Who are their employees and what are they paid? What do agency actions indicate about the priorities and practices of government? How do the activities of an agency or prosecutor in one community compare with those in a neighboring one or the nation as a whole? How have these activities changed over time? How does the record of one administration compare with the next? When the head of an agency or a district administrator changed, were there observable differences in actual enforcement priorities? When a new law was enacted or amended, what impact did it have on agency activities?

An essential step in the process of providing this information to the public is TRAC’s systematic and informed use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

TRAC’s Use of FOIA

In a working democracy that was consistent to its principles, government data collected and maintained by our tax dollars would be freely and readily made available to the American people. But in 1966, Congress found that a vast quantity of government information was being withheld and reacted by passing a law – the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This Act established the broad legal requirement that most government information must be made public.

The basic principle of FOIA is very simple: since the records of the federal government should be generally public, all you need to do is ask. For a variety of reasons — including the sheer number of records, the vast complexity in how information is recorded and stored, and the uneasiness many agencies feel about the public examining their day-to-day performance — the actual process of obtaining federal records is far from simple. Indeed, the systematic collection of such information usually is a difficult and time-consuming task. So difficult, in fact, that many news organizations, public interest groups, scholars and others do not bother to exercise their rights under FOIA. And even when they do, they often are not successful.

Because comprehensive and relevant records about what an agency is doing — and not doing — are essential to meaningful oversight, TRAC continuously uses the law to obtain new data about government enforcement and regulatory activities. Some agencies are remarkably open. Other agencies are not. In some circumstances TRAC has to file suit in federal court to force the release of vital data. Critical to TRAC’s use of FOIA is a small army of lawyers who donate their time and energy to represent us in court. See http://trac.syr.edu/foia to read more about these efforts.

 

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