A man is taken into custody in Panama City Beach, Florida.
A man is taken into custody at the Bay County Sheriff's Office mobile booking unit during spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida. Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters

After a bill passed by the Florida legislature is signed into law, the Sunshine State will gather more criminal-justice data and release it to the public.

The Sunshine State is about to shine a light on its own criminal-justice system: Florida will soon become the first state in the country to require all of its counties to release certain data pertaining to jails, policing, prisons, and courts. A bill passed by the state legislature earlier this month requires counties to gather, standardize, and release significantly more data than before. (The bill awaits signing by Governor Rick Scott.)

The anonymized, county-level data required by the bill includes: pre-trial release decisions; the case outcomes of indigent defendants; case outcomes broken down by ethnicity; recidivism rates after defendants are released from prison or probation; and other information, such as a court’s annual misdemeanor caseload. Prosecutors will also have to disclose their plea offers. The bill requires counties to report about 25 percent more data than they do now, according to Wired.

Law enforcement will start making data-gathering changes over the summer, and the state should have its first standardized data release by the summer of 2019, said State Representative Chris Sprowls, who introduced the bill. All of the information is to be published in one publicly accessible database.

Judges’ plea offers will be disclosed “not just [for felonies], but misdemeanors,” said Amy Bach, the founder and executive director of Measures for Justice, a national organization that collects court data and creates performance measures to help localities identify problems in their criminal-justice systems. It’s significant that Florida has included misdemeanor plea offers, Bach said, because minor offenses are “where people really get sucked into the system.”

Standardization is key so that data can be compared across counties. “This [law] takes the data throughout the state, pipes it into the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, standardizes it, and puts it into one central location, so that we can begin to spot trends [in] the system,” said Sprowls. He introduced the bill after looking at data from Measures for Justice and seeing how much more could be gleaned with cleaner, comparative information.

Until now, data analysis has been complicated by the myriad ways that counties collected and classified their information. “You have nomenclature barriers and data-collection barriers,” said Bill Cervone, the state attorney for Florida’s Eighth Circuit and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association. Cervone believes standardized data is crucial for comparative purposes. “It’s the kind of information that can give you perspective, or allow you to consider some other methodology,” he said.

Other parts of the country offer clues as to how Florida’s data might be put to use. In New York City, information about the number of low-level marijuana arrests was cited by activists as proof that the mayor’s policy to de-prioritize such charges was not working; this led to an oversight hearing by the city council. Prosecutors’ offices have also begun to use better data to spot failures in their systems. In Wisconsin’s Winnebago County, District Attorney Christian Gossett scoured data provided by Measures for Justice and found that his district had a disproportionate number of indigent defendants in jails.

As a result, Gossett’s office began to prioritize lower-level cases, telling attorneys that they had to determine quickly whether were going to charge a defendant and release them the same day if they were not. The county also changed the way judges handled cases. Now, for “anybody who’s going to be in custody for more than 48 hours, there has to be a decision made by a judge that there’s a probable cause to old the person,” Gossett said. “If you’re sitting in jail, a matter of days is a very long time. As little as 24 hours can have an impact on rates of recidivism. You have to watch out for collateral consequences.” All of the reforms, said Gossett, transpired from seeing that one anomaly.

After Florida’s first data release, Sprowls expects the reporting to be as close to real-time as possible. Though he can’t say what it may take to get similar measures passed in other states, he hopes that Florida’s bill will encourage others to follow suit.

“The hope for us is we do this in the most robust way of any state in the country,” he said, “that states look at Florida say, ‘Look at what they’ve done—it’s transformational.’”

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