Can Big Data Fix Florida’s Criminal Justice System?

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It won’t surprise anyone to hear that Florida is tough on crime. But it is costly.

Offenders must serve 85 percent of their sentences, and state laws require “three strikes” mandatory sentences more often than any other state. In addition, sentences are frequently lengthened through enhancements for repeat offenders.

While such policies may comfort tough-on-crime proponents, they have had unforeseen impacts for taxpayers and the prison population.

According to a 2018 report compiled by the Boston-based Criminal Resources for Justice (based on 2016 data), although Florida is sending fewer people to prison, “those who do end up there are serving longer sentences, including those convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses.”

Editor’s Note: The report did not define “low-level sentences.” (Florida does not sentence individuals convicted of misdemeanor offenses to state prison.)

Inmate population in Florida prisons has edged down from a peak of 102,319 in FY 2010-2011 to 96,252 in fiscal year 2017-2018, according to the latest annual report  of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), which still makes Florida the third largest state prison system in the U.S., costing taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion annually to support.

In February, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a $120 million increase in spending on prison health care alone to help the state meet court mandates requiring it to provide better treatment for inmates with Hepatitis C, mental illnesses and disabilities.

By 2023, about 27 percent of prisoners are expected to be elderly, which will further increase health costs.

Now state legislators aim to do something about it; but one of their solutions could make some people squirm.

In March, 2018, the state became the first in the country to require all the components of its justice system—from jails and prosecutors to courts and prisons—to coordinate data collection and publish it online. This move to generate what is known as “Big Data” has been called a “criminal justice data revolution,” According to The Miami Herald, it would give the state “an unprecedented tool to measure problems and success.”

The first results were stark.

Among their insights:

  • Low-level offenders who serve prison time are more likely to reoffend than those given a sentence of probation;
  • Race but not ethnicity were recorded, leaving some 4.3 million Latino residents in a gray area regarding sentencing outcomes;
  • Black defendants were given sentences 60 percent longer than white defendants charged with the same crime.

But the drive to use Big Data as a guide to saving money could come at the cost of public unease with other major shifts in criminal justice policy,  particularly in a state that is synonymous with stand-your-ground laws.

Squaring data with policy will never be an exact fit, so it requires careful analysis and up-to-date training of the personnel who will be collecting and interpreting it.

Big Data is no magic wand.

In order to compare apples to apples, legislators first need to ensure that funding and resources are available for courts to standardize data collection and potentially upgrade computer systems or software to make the required reports.

Big Data and Privacy Rights

Florida’s data “revolution” will surely prompt other states to follow suit, but can Big Data really fix complex justice systems?

The state is already working to improve the data collection mandates, based on pilot projects underway in several counties, but there are many who are skeptical about its usefulness.

“It’s hard to say cases are apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” Bob Dillinger, the public defender in Pasco and Pinellas counties, recently told The Marshall Project.

“Judges consider employment history, mental health, prior criminal records.”

But, he added, “someone who is 18 with no prior felonies isn’t the same as someone who was in and out of juvenile detention,” noting that the data law won’t illuminate factors that may have justifiably influenced the judges.

Big Data also may have limited value in rooting out historical bias.  Efforts to use algorithm-based  risk assessment tools to develop informed sentencing have been criticized elsewhere on the grounds that the data they provide about a person’s previous criminal history invariably reflects  systemic racial inequalities, and thus only reinforces racial disparities.

Civil liberties court cases are likely to be generated by the increased use of Big Data as well, specifically the kind of vacuuming of information adopted by pólice in practices like license plate scanning, which are potentially a challenge to privacy rights..

A Coral Gables, Fl.,  man filed suit charging violation of his privacy for that city’s collection of license plate data by at least 30 cameras, which he claims have tracked him thousands of times. This data is shared among a variety of law enforcement officials despite a prohibition on police collecting cell phone information in a similar way.

It won’t be long before Big Data appears in the courtroom before trial, too.

High-stakes litigation is expected to feel the impact of jury selection that goes much deeper than whether a person is white or black, college educated or a tradesman.

While it can improve responses to jury summonses, Big Data may also help to predict how jurors will  decide a case before they even gather in the jury room by divining which colleges they attended, their driving and shopping habits, and perhaps which magazines they subscribe to.

Douglas Parker

Douglas Parker

These are impressive claims.

But before we rely on Big Data to produce smarter justice policy, we ought to be asking whether it also ensures fair and equal treatment for the people it is designed to help.

EDITOR’S NOTE: this is a revised version of the original article, which corrects inaccuracies about Florida’s prison statistics and costs, and adds new information.

Douglas Parker is a free-lance writer based in California who specializes in legal issues.

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