The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is filing a lawsuit requesting a court order for state and local officials to comply with criminal justice data collection laws that have become a part of the legal code. Here’s what you should know.
Data Collection and Reporting
In 2018, Florida Legislature passed a law that would create strict regulations for collecting and reporting criminal data by local and state law enforcement officials. The law mandated that agencies should be able to collect information related to cases, bail, pretrial filings, and other court documentation.
This transparency and openness in the criminal justice system helps outsiders see what goes on behind closed doors and protects the rights of the accused by making information related to their case available as a way to keep officials accountable.
However, since its implementation in 2018, state and local officials have failed to comply. The ACLU is concerned that this reinforces their concerns about widespread discrimination and racially motivated obstruction.
There are also concerns that a lack of transparency further confuses the public’s understanding of the criminal justice system. ACLU Staff Attorney Benjamin Stevenson says,
“Without enough comprehensive data for Floridians […], it will be extremely difficult to evaluate pathways to meaningful reform to our justice system.”
The ACLU’s claims against state and local criminal justice agencies are focused on their noncompliance. Essentially, the legislature passed a landmark transparency law, officials failed to follow through, and now the ACLU is holding them accountable.
Public records that detail the victims, investigation, and pretrial motions help public defenders and advocacy groups to make a strong case on their client’s behalf. Without transparency, crucial evidence could be buried deep in court records while an innocent person goes to jail.
The ACLU has a long history of fighting for criminal justice reform, and now that there is a significant movement toward justice and transparency, the organization is understandably disappointed by the lack of participation and compliance.
Chapter members have repeatedly requested records from officials only to be told that these records do not exist. Another issue brought up in the suit is the lack of a database to streamline data collection and retrieval.
Why Is This Important?
One of the central pain points for criminal justice movements throughout American history is transparency. Without evidence, witnesses, or valuable documents, defenders are often left telling half the story, and their clients are at a higher risk of going to prison.
Information is critical during the criminal process - police need the data to make an arrest, prosecutors need details to file charges, the defense needs evidence to support their client, and the judge needs information to make a decision. If there are information silos that withhold crucial facts, the criminal justice system may not be as fair or just as it’s intended to be.
Other groups have raised similar concerns over the years. Florida State University students published a Project on Accountable Justice that addresses similar concerns, and the Black Caucus of the Legislature pushed for accountability and justice in light of the cruel deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
It is clear that this is a matter that is close to the hearts of many Floridians, and there will continue to be a push for justice and reform. Until there can be more accountability, there will always be questions about fairness in the justice system.