There’s no such thing as the US criminal justice system. There are, instead, thousands of counties across the country, each with their own systems, made up of a diffuse network of sheriffs, court clerks, prosecutors, public defenders, and jail officials who all enforce the rules around who does and doesn’t end up behind bars. It’s hard enough to ensure that key details about a case pass from one node of this convoluted web to the other within a single county; forget about at the state or national level.
That's what makes a new criminal justice reform bill now making its way to Florida governor Rick Scott’s desk especially noteworthy. On Friday, the Florida Legislature approved a bill, introduced by Republican state representative Chris Sprowls, that requires every entity within the state’s criminal justice system to collect an unprecedented amount of data and publish it in one publicly accessible database. That database will store anonymized data about individual defendants—including, among other things, previously unrecorded details about their ethnicities and the precise terms of their plea deals. It will also include county-level data about the daily number of people being held in a given jail pre-trial, for instance, or a court’s annual misdemeanor caseload. All in, the bill requires counties to turn over about 25 percent more data than they currently do.
Until now, in Florida and in most states, some of this information has remained trapped in arcane, disconnected databases, and sometimes even in filing cabinets. As a former gang and homicide prosecutor, Sprowls says he often struggled to find even something as simple as recidivism rates within a given county. "We were really flying blind," he says. "We didn't have access to the data, because it was in so many different places, it was virtually unusable."
Recently some local governments, including California's, have taken steps to make county-level criminal justice data public, but experts say no state has gone as far as the Florida bill. It's the first state to require this level of transparency at the case-by-case level, unlocking a wealth of nuanced information that could help lawmakers more easily detect the kind of problematic patterns and biases that plague courts and law enforcement agencies across the country.
"Florida is without question, without hesitation, now the leader in data transparency, reporting, and measurement across the country, and they don't pay me to say that," says Deborrah Brodsky, director of Florida State University's Project on Accountable Justice.
'It’s not only Florida’s problem. It’s a national one. Criminal justice data in this country is a mess.'
Amy Bach, Measures for Justice
Florida has hardly been immune to accusations of bias. Beginning in 2016, The Herald Tribune began publishing a series of investigations into racial bias in Florida courts. Among the statistics the paper unearthed: In felony cases where black and white defendants with the same criminal history were charged with the same crime, judges sentenced black defendants to longer prison sentences 60 percent of the time.
But almost as troubling as the statistics was the Herculean effort required to sift through the five separate databases and boxes of court documents that contained the underlying information. In recent years, some non-profit groups have sprung up to collect, clean, and publish this kind of data. One, in particular, called Measures for Justice, worked closely with the Florida lawmakers who designed this bill.
Last fall, Sprowls invited Amy Bach, executive director of Measures for Justice, which launched its own criminal justice data portal last year, to present the organization's findings to the Florida House Judiciary Committee. The Measures for Justice team had spent years traveling county-to-county, digging through spreadsheets and dusty file folders, collecting data that reflects the equitability of a given state's criminal justice system.
Even with that time-intensive effort, in most Florida counties, the Measures for Justice team only found information on 18 of the 32 measurements they were looking for. "It’s not only Florida’s problem. It’s a national one. Criminal justice data in this country is a mess," Bach says. "The different agencies don't talk to teach other. How can we possibly make informed policy decisions?"
The Florida lawmakers asked the Measures for Justice team about the obstacles they faced, Bach remembers, and within months, the bill was introduced. "The amount of man hours that had to go into collecting that, almost manually, and doing pubic records requests was astronomical," Sprowls says. "I thought both as a lawmaker and a resident of Florida, it shouldn't be that difficult for people to understand how our system works and whether it’s functioning properly."
A Model Effort
The Florida bill will require the collection of all of the data that Measures for Justice has been seeking and then some. It will not, however, include historical data. One area of particular interest for both Bach and Brodsky: the never-before-seen details of defendants' plea agreements. As Bach says, plea deals are the "black box" of the criminal justice system. Defendants are often pressured into accepting these deals to avoid harsher punishment, but the closed-door conversations that lead up to these deals are never revealed to researchers or lawmakers. Now, they will be. "It’s really holding prosecutors' feet to the fire," says Bach.
Other researchers say that the publicly available race and ethnicity data could uncover instances of bias more quickly than in the past. "Florida’s effort to uniformly gather, analyze, and disseminate more data about race and the criminal justice system will likely increase the legitimacy of, and public trust in, the system," says Ram Subramanian, editorial director of the Vera Institute for Justice, which has published reports on racial disparities among incarcerated people.
If Governor Scott does sign this bill, Florida still has obstacles to overcome in implementing it. It will require a multi-million dollar investment in technology that can connect these disparate databases and present them in a user-friendly manner to the public. While most of the data-sharing requirements would take effect in 2019, the state plans to pilot the project this year in Florida's 6th circuit court. Sprowls acknowledges there will be plenty of kinks to work out along the way, but he believes the process will be well worth it. If done properly, this effort could not only yield much-needed criminal justice policy changes in Florida, but also serve as a model for the country as a whole.
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