The Transparency the Criminal Justice System Needs

We can't have effective policymaking without comprehensive data. By mandating standardized data collection across the state, Florida is leading the way.
July 24, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
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By Chris Sprowls  |  Contributor
Chairman of the Florida House Rules Committee

What does justice in America look like? Policymakers, law enforcement officers and academic researchers across the country have been struggling with that question, particularly as it applies to the local jails and state prisons where most offenders are held. This issue differs from other public debates because all of us -- conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat -- share a common goal: We all want to reduce unnecessary incarceration while maintaining public safety and freeing up tax dollars to be used for other public priorities.

Unfortunately, when it comes to incarceration, this debate has been long on passion and painfully short on facts. That became clear two years ago, when an organization called Measures for Justice came to Florida to talk about criminal justice reform. What did criminal justice in Florida look like? Was the system keeping communities safe? Were our tax dollars being used in efficient and effective ways? Measures for Justice told us that we didn't know enough to answer those simple questions.

This rang true based on my experience as a gang and homicide prosecutor. When you prosecute a case, you are focused on a snapshot of the system -- this victim, that perpetrator, these facts. It becomes very easy to lose sight of how a single case fits into the larger picture and how our actions compare to what prosecutors, judges and juries are doing in other jurisdictions. Without access to data, we had no objective measures to use to validate our theories, disprove our assumptions or test our biases. Even when we tried non-traditional solutions, such as the veterans court I helped to create in my state judicial circuit, we made decisions based more on instinct and observation than on information.

Like most other states, Florida had done little to collect, standardize or make publicly available comprehensive data on how our 67 counties handle criminal justice cases. As a result, neither law enforcement nor policymakers could answer basic questions about who was in jail, for what crimes and for how long. We could not gauge the success of our reform efforts or base new initiatives on solid evidence. Thus, we could not make smart decisions about where to channel resources.

Florida is known as the Sunshine State, and we take that moniker seriously. A year ago, the legislature passed a landmark criminal justice data transparency law that will go a long way toward tearing down institutional barriers and shedding light on a system that has mostly operated in the shadows. The law mandates the standardized collection of common-sense data points in all of Florida's counties, and the legislature appropriated $1.67 million for its implementation.

This comprehensive data, spanning the criminal justice process from arrest to post-conviction, will be aggregated and made available to the public, for free, in one centralized repository. The public, law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers will be able to compare the quality of justice across counties within the state. We will finally have the data necessary to spot trends in the system and guide good policymaking. In the this year's legislative session, lawmakers appropriated another $5.7 million to ensure that this is the nation's most ambitious pursuit of criminal justice transparency.

Other states are following suit with their own approaches to criminal justice transparency. Colorado just passed a bill that requires jail administrators to collect data on individual cases and jail populations, and to report to a statewide agency quarterly. Connecticut just passed a bill that requires prosecutorial data to be collected and shared alongside data germane to parole revocations. These measures are a start in the right direction, as is a California bill making its way through the legislative process that would expand collection of criminal justice system data. And more states are poised to follow Florida's lead.

With reliable, standardized and publicly available data, we will be able to make criminal justice policy decisions that are freer of assumptions, stereotypes and prejudice. We will be able to build the kind of criminal justice system that every American can have faith in. This is one issue where the truth really can set people free.