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.
The problem with criminal-justice records stems from both inadequate access and wild inconsistencies in methodology. Because “each county has different agencies that record the data in its own way, there’s no common language,” MFJ founder Amy Bach says. “There’s no standard definitions…. The idea is, if we can see what’s happening in these [places] then we can begin to create better policies.”
The legislation will require major state investments and expertise to implement. But the effort could be worth cost: It will allow ordinary people to gain unprecedented transparency, enabling them to analyze disparities across the state, and examine how wisely and efficiently tax dollars are being spent on a criminal-justice system that is currently costing the state $100 million annually.
Without this transparency, communities require litigation or a Freedom of Information Act request to explore, for example, county-level bail decisions, or why local precincts seem to target certain black and brown communities for police stops of youth, or why black residents routinely receive longer jail sentences than others for the same pot-possession charges. The new data will also crack open the “black box” of the plea-bargaining system, by mandating reporting on which cases receive different outcomes under plea deals to avoid prosecution—making the difference between perhaps months in jail and weeks of community service.
Part of the momentum for the legislation is due to massive gaps in county-level data for basic demographic and legal outcomes. But from the limited historical information available for Florida, troubling patterns have surfaced. We know, for example, that mass incarceration, parallel with nationwide trends, has soared since the 1990s—largely driven by nonviolent and drug-related offenses. Blacks are five and a half times more likely than whites to be imprisoned statewide. Often people are reincarcerated not for new crimes but just for violating parole sentences.
Small towns, where data collection is often sparse, sometimes harbor the widest disparities: In Citrus County, African Americans constitute a tiny minority, but are jailed at extremely disproportionate rates for nonviolent misdemeanors. Why does majority-white Hernando County appear to convict people of color at over twice the rate of whites in misdemeanor cases, and typically jail them for over four times as long as their white counterparts?
Through comprehensive data analysis, racial disparities could be measured against statewide statistics or compared across counties with similar law-enforcement policies. The public could map how high black incarceration rates in a small town fits in with, say, rising unemployment or spiking drug-overdose deaths. The goal, which is broadly supported as a method of democratizing the criminal-justice system (with support from prosecutors and public defenders alike), is to elucidate the reality behind often-misunderstood disparities in the system that impact historically disadvantaged communities.
The real public quest behind the data isn’t just statistics but ensuring public integrity for traditionally opaque agencies. The reason we can’t track performance in the justice system the way that we track, say, student test scores or every tick of the stock market is simply that it deals with a disenfranchised population. According to Deborrah Brodsky, director of Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice: “The public are shareholders in our government institutions….consider the tools readily available for people to track how well their schools are doing, or their water quality. In contrast, there is scant comparable assessment of our local courts and everyday criminal justice practices.”
“The people who experience these institutions haven’t formed a constituency to ask for something like data, because they’re going on with their lives, really, whether they’re defendants or they’re victims,” Bach says. Yes, there’s a business case to be made for tracking how taxpayer funds are spent, and there’s a good-government case for encouraging transparency on principle. Nonetheless, the focus of accountability, in her view, remains, first and foremost the ordinary people interacting with courtrooms, jails, and police every day: “It’s the people that matter…. it’s the citizens that count. And now people are starting to say, ‘Well, maybe we should count them.’”