Wired by Issie Lapowsky
March 13, 2018
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.” [READ MORE]