Florida spends nearly $2.4 billion a year to keep more than 100,000 people behind bars. The state runs not only one of the largest and most expensive prison systems in the US, but also among the most racially disparate. Nearly half of the incarcerated are African-Americans who only account for 17% of Florida’s population.
Nicole Lewis reports on efforts to use data to improve Florida’s prison system in this article from The Marshall Project:
Lawmakers are split over which is the more pressing problem: the high cost of locking so many people up or the overrepresentation of black people in prison. But they do agree that to address either issue, they need more data.
Last year, the Sunshine State became the first in the country to require its jails, prosecutors, public defenders, courts and prisons to coordinate their data collection, enabling lawmakers and the public to track how someone moves through the entire criminal justice system, from arrest to release. The new information will be sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which will publish it online.
Supporters of the new law 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. Research shows that long sentences increase prison costs, without improving public safety. Now, backers say, the legislature can craft reforms that are informed by facts.
“This new data is going to 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, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Lawmakers approved a pilot in Pasco and Pinellas counties, in the Tampa Bay area on Florida’s west coast, to figure out the best practices for collecting the new information. Law enforcement agencies keep separate records, which vary from county to county. The goal of the pilot 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.