(TNS) — Florida will have the most transparent criminal justice system in the nation following new legislation aimed at improving data collection.
The legislation establishes a framework for a new database that will track a defendant's experience at each step of the criminal justice system — from arrest and bail proceedings to sentencing — and compare those outcomes through a searchable website available to the public.
Experts say the new online portal will help them identify problems in the system, setting the stage for future reforms, while helping to improve judicial and prosecutorial fairness. If successful, they expect other states to follow.
"It's a huge win because once it's fully operational, it will provide a treasure trove of information by which we can measure disparities in the system," said Carlos Martinez, the public defender for Miami-Dade. "This is a monumental undertaking, but it's critical. You can't change what you don't know."
The bill — inspired by the Herald-Tribune's 2016 investigation "Bias on the Bench" and its 2017 series "One War. Two Races" — requires every Florida county to collect and report dozens of data elements, including information on pretrial release, defendant indigence and ethnicity, and what type of offenders are being convicted for new offenses.
The state would maintain the new centralized databank, which will be updated weekly and published on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website.
If OK'd by Gov. Rick Scott, who can still veto the measure, the project will launch as a pilot in Florida's 6th Circuit Court in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"It will make everyone's job in the system easier," said Derek Byrd, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Sarasota. "Trying to find this information before was like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
A similar bill to reform data collection was first proposed last year by Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who announced the measure on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in response to the Herald-Tribune's investigation into racial biases in sentencing.
That reporting showed Florida courts are biased against blacks, sentencing minorities to far more prison time than white offenders who committed the same crimes and scored the same number of points on their criminal punishment scoresheets, which should indicate similar punishment.
But the bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
The sweeping new data measure that cleared the Senate late Friday drew much more bipartisan support from lawmakers and criminal justice experts than the proposal a year earlier.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican from Land O'Lakes, said the data measure was "a game-changer." The Florida Smart Justice Alliance, a right-leaning and law enforcement-centric reform group, called it the "most important bill this session."
"The ability to look at qualitative information about our criminal justice system will not only bring transparency, it will guide our future decision making," Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor who championed the bill, said in a statement.
Judges in Sarasota's 12th Circuit also supported the legislation as a way to create and analyze "quality, accurate, and verifiable criminal data."
"We hope the collection of such data will assist the courts in eliminating racial disparity in the criminal court system," 12th Circuit Chief Judge Charles Williams said in a statement.
Support from Williams was instrumental in getting the bill to pass this year, as were efforts from retired Jacksonville attorney A. Wellington Barlow, who traveled the state convincing judges of the need for better data. Measures for Justice, which will help implement the new data requirement, also was a force behind the bill's success.
The measure requires court clerks to collect and relay data elements, including information on bail, sentencing and the defendant's personal characteristics — age, race and gender. Court clerks, state attorneys, public defenders, jail operators and law enforcement administrators will each be responsible for collecting and disseminating certain data points.
"This is an outstanding development because there is no accountability," said Larry Eger, public defender for the 12th Circuit. "This is something that needed to be done."
Justice system experts hope it will help alleviate many of the disparities uncovered by the Herald-Tribune.
"We have now gone from finger-pointing to problem-solving," said Deborrah Brodsky, director of Florida State University's Project on Accountable Justice.
The 6th Circuit will partner with a national, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that's embedded within the courts to help comply with the new requirements.
Measures for Justice, whose mission is to bring county-level transparency to the criminal justice system from arrest to post-conviction, will be tasked with that responsibility.
The organization has done similar work to publish data around the country, but Florida will become the first state to require this level of open data in the justice system, Measures for Justice Executive Director Amy Bach said.
"Nearly every institution in the private sector uses data to measure performance," Bach told the Herald-Tribune on Monday. "There's a huge data gap in the criminal justice system. The infrastructure is just not there."
Measures for Justice does not lobby, but Bach said her organization met with lawmakers, educating them on the potential of what can be done with proper data analysis. She believes the organization's nonpartisan status — and prior work — helped draw support from sides of the political aisle.
"The data is a mess," Bach said. "There's no common language. There are no standard definitions. You're flying blind ... The whole point is if you start using data, data breeds more data. You can't do anything until you start using it, and this is a perfect example of that."
But court officials expect some bumps in the process, especially when it comes to training clerks in 67 counties to enter the information into the new database with accuracy and consistency.
Court officers also expect minor tweaks to come in the next few years that further address funding and review data elements initially left out of the effort. Among them, they would like to see more data on children prosecuted as adults and records from offices of criminal conflict and regional counsel, which represent defendants who have a conflict with the public defender's office.
"The data collection is a good foundational step," said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It's a predicate to more comprehensive criminal justice reform. What we know about how the system is operating in Florida is spotty. You increase data and transparency for the public, policymakers and the media.
"That allows us to see where the system is failing and hold prosecutors, judges and legislators accountable."
©2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.