While Florida has been in the media spotlight for retrograde gun policies, lawmakers just moved toward enlightenment in the shadowy annals of the criminal-justice system, by passing landmark legislation that could dramatically expand public access to court and incarceration data in the state with the third largest prison population in the country.
Merging big data with local accountability, the bill, which now awaits Governor Rick Scott’s signature, will create a statewide data-collection system to hold agencies accountable for abuse, patterns of institutionalized racism, and other structural inequities, and is based on a straightforward proposition: The more the public knows, the stronger their democracy. The bill, introduced by Republican State Representative and former prosecutor Chris Sprowls, will bring an unprecedented expansion of data collection—about 25 percent more than is currently gathered—targeting several key measures, including: pretrial release decisions, to detail how bail is granted and on what terms; comprehensive race and ethnicity data, including about Latinos (who are often miscategorized as “white”); and other social measures such as poverty rates, to expose how socioeconomic status impacts case outcomes. Promoted as a bipartisan transparency measure, the new system will gather data on all future cases across 67 counties, fully anonymized to protect identity, and track recidivism rates following incarceration to show the public how people cycle through prisons. The daily jail population and prison budgets and staffing levels will also be traceable, in order to monitor long-term incarceration trends.
Although historically much of this data has been analyzed locally through academic research or journalistic investigations, the bill promises to create a unified data architecture and “language” for all counties, digestible for public consumption. With adequate investment and a user-friendly interface, everyone from legal researchers to families of defendants will, ideally, have a direct window into how criminal-justice practices intersect with state spending, local politics, and community conditions.
Data-transparency initiatives have been pioneered locally and nationally by advocacy groups who believe that the gaps that plague criminal-justice institutions today reflect a profoundly overlooked democracy deficit. Florida’s bill was crafted with guidance from Measures for Justice (MFJ), an institute that collaborates with communities to establish comprehensive frameworks for tracking criminal-justice outcomes and has advised similar projects in other states. Typically, its work has involved wading through paper files and mining local clerk’s offices. But a technological overhaul will put the onus on state agencies to report this data, so anyone can readily access information that has long dwelled in the black hole of bureaucracy.