Excerpted From: Maria Rojas, Modernizing Justice: Implementing Blockchain Technology into the Criminal Justice System to Reduce Mass Incarceration, 47 Nova Law Review 199 (Spring, 2023) (222 Footnotes) (Full Document)


MariaRojas“It has long been said that a society's worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons.” The United States, then, yields a grim judgment: although it houses only four percent of the world's population, it incarcerates twenty percent of the global prison population. The United States has the highest incarcerated population by housing nearly two million prisoners as of 2022. Technology used in our criminal justice system is generally outdated despite an abundance of tools available to uphold the administration of justice. A dependence on manual data management and outmoded IT systems has led to a duplicative and costly method of operating. Most importantly, this system continues to produce broader margins of error, higher volumes of lost evidence, and vulnerabilities within the chain of custody--with defendants bearing the burden of unnecessary and prolonged incarceration. Instead of modernizing, the outmoded system has fallen far behind. Currently, inefficient and insecure file management practices directly contribute to lengthy pretrial detention processes and wrongful convictions. Accordingly, over twenty-three percent of people behind bars in the United States are merely awaiting trial, while as many as six percent have been wrongfully incarcerated.

Blockchain, originally implemented by and historically used predominantly for cryptocurrencies, has the potential to expedite pretrial operations, enhance the security of sensitively stored documents, enable tracing of documentation, and expose sources of evidence falsification by overhauling the justice system's storage and sharing of information.

This Comment will analyze blockchain in light of the inherent characteristics and risks associated with its integration into the United States criminal justice system to combat mass incarceration. Part II will discuss mass incarceration in the United States, focusing on pretrial detention and wrongful convictions as partial drivers of incarceration rates. Part III will introduce blockchain technology and its varieties, as well as analyze current applications of the technology within different industries across the United States, and progressive legislation relating to its implementation. Part III will also propose potential uses of blockchain technology in the criminal justice system, focusing on applications that yield a reduction in incarceration rates as well as the risks and challenges that state agencies will face in the implementation of the distributed ledger. Lastly, Part IV will analyze why states should consider implementing blockchain into their agencies in furtherance of public policy--specifically the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial and the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

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An overly saturated prison population drastically undermines American principles of justice. While the causes of mass incarceration are copious and oftentimes overlap, it remains uncontested that detainees held in pretrial detention, and those who are wrongfully convicted, significantly contribute to the growing statistic. The adverse societal and individual harms imposed by spending time behind bars, especially absent an actual or legitimate indictment, should serve to encourage reform. A technical innovation in the form of a blockchain-based platform is needed to thrust the criminal justice system into the realm of the Digital Age that will improve the efficiency of inter-governmental cooperation, reduce human error, strengthen security of judicial information, and enhance transparency of criminal procedures.

Moreover, the benefits of blockchain technology in the criminal justice systems across the country are clear. Blockchain records provide accurate and up-to-date criminal histories, verifiable integrity, and an immutable history of case and evidence handling in an effective manner. Blockchain records would reduce the need for copious amounts of paperwork, manual data entry, and control efforts that hinder the current criminal justice system. With fewer administrative barriers, delays that contribute to lengthy pretrial detention, as well as errors and misconduct that result in wrongful convictions, could be alleviated, reducing the use of incarceration in our society.

Technology, however, is a double-edged sword, and like any technological innovation, the inherent risks and challenges are merely barriers to overcome. Developing blockchain platforms that are accurate and efficient is not a simple task. Engineering the cryptographic systems that allow consensus protocols to function requires expertise in the technology of distributed systems. Thus, to utilize blockchain technology's benefits to the fullest extent, expert review and recommendations based on the theory and implementation of a blockchain platform in the criminal justice system are needed. More work is still required to address the technical challenges of blockchains that have not been fully solved. As implementation of blockchain technology into different industries across the nation becomes inevitable, states have increasingly shifted attitudes and established forces equipped to tackle all the potential benefits, as well as the drawbacks, of the new technology head-on. Blockchain technology is not an unattainable theory of technology, it is real and able to offer effective benefits to the criminal justice system. State agencies have an obligation to keep up with advancements in technology that have an effect on the administration of justice, especially when it relates to upholding the right to a speedy process of justice.

Maria Rojas earned her bachelor's degree in Political Science at the University of Central Florida. She is currently a Juris Doctor candidate for May 2024 at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law.