New Florida Law Takes Lead on Criminal Justice Data

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By Jordan S. Rubin

A trailblazing new criminal justice law could be a game-changer in Florida and in other states that choose to follow its lead.

Passed with bipartisan support and approved by Gov. Rick Scott (R) March 30, the first-of-its-kind measure requires various actors across the system to compile information that the state will then make available for the public in a central database.

Its author, state Rep. Chris Sprowls (R), wants Florida to have “the most robust collection and most transparent reporting of criminal justice data of any state in America,” he told Bloomberg Law.

His aim might come to pass with the new measure, which he and others say will allow better-informed decisions in areas where they’re currently “flying blind.” More information on plea deals and recidivism could be especially useful, they say.

The law that takes effect July 1 basically says two things, Sprowls said: It lists all of the data elements agencies must collect, and it ensures the information is available in one place.

It collects over 100 pieces of information, including race, gender, pleas, sentences, pretrial diversion, and bail.

It’s the first electronic state-wide data law, Marc Levin of Right on Crime told Bloomberg Law. The group, a national campaign of conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, “strongly supported” the bill, he said.

He hopes other states adopt similar measures.

It’s “really important because it will provide a window into the challenges in the criminal justice system and hopefully more ammunition for substantive reforms in the future,” he said.

“It’s the most comprehensive effort to date,” Amy Bach, executive director of Measures for Justice, told Bloomberg Law.

Her Rochester, N.Y.-based group, founded to develop a data-driven set of performance measures to assess the criminal justice system, helped inspire the law.

It requires the state to start publishing the data within a year from when it goes into effect.

Flying Blind

Sprowls, a former prosecutor now in private practice, wants to make criminal justice decisions “in a data-driven way,” he said.

But he said the information the state currently has is not telling the whole story.

“We’re kind of flying blind,” he said.

Sprowls, chair of the state House Judiciary Committee, got law enforcement agencies together to identify the kinds of data they collected and figure out where the gaps were.

He met with Bach and her group to learn more about what types of data can be collected, and how. Bach seemed to agree that information about the criminal justice system isn’t being harnessed as well as it could.

“We haven’t had data available that can be used to analyze and compare how justice works on a local level,” she said.

What’s the Use?

The law is “groundbreaking” due to the information it will provide about plea agreements, in particular, Right on Crime’s Levin said.

Those have traditionally been “kind of a black box,” he said.

Pretrial data will also be “illuminating,” he said. Recidivism is another area that could benefit from more study.

“Knowing recidivism rates is a basic question in criminal justice,” Sprowls said. But without full information, “you can’t determine if the policies you’re using to combat crime or reduce recidivism is working.”

More information can also help assess “whether poor defendants have different outcomes than others,” Bach said.

And knowing who re-offends after release from prison will help the system “home in on high risk offenders, which will improve public safety,” she said.

Data and Taxes

The new law shows criminal justice reform isn’t necessarily a liberal issue.

The public “deserves to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” Levin said.

“People need to know how the systems designed to help them are working,” Bach said.

There’s “something for everyone” in the data, she said. “If you’re a money person, there’s fiscal responsibility. If you really care about equal protection, there’s fair process.”

If one part of the state is “over-utilizing” the prison system, that creates more of a burden on taxpayers across the entire state, Levin said.

Taxpayers could be paying to keep low-level offenders in jail for months, he said.

Now it will be easier to evaluate whether people in one county are going to prison for an offense that offenders in another county are getting probation for, he said.

Bipartisan Data

Of the two types of people Bach alluded to—the fiscal person, the fairness person—both came together in Florida to support the new law.

The transparency issue united the legislature, Sprowls said.

“We have to ask if the government is working,” he said. “And we have to not be afraid of what the answers are.”

When asked whether there was organized opposition to bill, Sprowls said there wasn’t.

And he ventured a reason why: “It’s hard to fight the idea of being completely transparent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

For More Information

The text of the law is available at src.bna.com/xwk.

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