Florida has one of the nation’s largest and most expensive prison systems. Each year, the state spends nearly $2.4 billion to keep 100,000 people behind bars. Almost half of the inmates are blacks, who make up 17 percent of the state’s population. Last year, Florida became the first state to require jails, prosecutors, public defenders, courts and prisons to coordinate data collection, enabling lawmakers and the public to track how someone moves through the criminal justice system. The law’s supporters hope it will bring transparency to an opaque justice system, illuminating where racial disparities begin while testing the merits of Florida’s strict sentencing policies, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Research shows that long sentences increase prison costs, without improving public safety. The data will “allow us to see whether reforms are working or whether the criminal justice system is working, instead of just going by ‘common sense’ or folksy thoughts,” said Benjamin Stevenson of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lawmakers approved a pilot in Pasco and Pinellas counties to figure out the best practices for collecting the new information. The goal is to link police, court and other computer systems, standardize data collection, and create a blueprint for how all 67 counties will submit data to the state agency on July 1, when the new law goes into effect. Court clerks bear the burden of the new reporting requirements. But police departments use different forms, and the new law does not require the departments to adopt a single document. In 2017, police arrested more than 700,000 people, according to state data. If the Legislature requires the police to use a single form, court clerks can automate the data extraction process, said Ken Burke, circuit court clerk in Pinellas County.