The Datafication of Law: How Technology Encodes Carceral Power and Affects Judicial Practice in the United States

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This inquiry explores how data analyses about US Federal sentences have transformed sentencing practice beginning in the mid-1980s. I consider this inquiry an early case of the datafication of law, a pervasive process that translates legal practice into data and embeds it in digital networks so it can be tracked and analyzed in real time. To explore datafication historically and in relation to legal practice and power, I consider it not as an objective and passive undertaking but, rather, as an ideological and performative process that encodes and enacts normative presumptions and desirable futures. The empirical inquiry traverses “levels of analysis” and thus bridges prominent perspectives in sociolegal research. In so doing, I identify four mechanisms that mediate “large-scale” processes and “local” practices: field assembly, symbolic projection, material inscription, and boundaries spanning. Substantively, I show how datafication has not simply described, but also transformed, sentencing practice according to a colorblind-carceral imaginary that strives to fix the present in place. By relentlessly translating decisions into data forms that derive from this carceral imaginary, datafication affects judicial action and partakes in sustaining legacies of oppression. Yet, like other technologies, datafication also reveals dialectic dimensions in opening up to new actors and subjecting its ideological underpinnings to contestation and change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-94
Number of pages40
JournalLaw and Social Inquiry
Issue number1
StatePublished - 28 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Bar Foundation.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • Law


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