More than three years after Florida passed a criminal-justice data transparency law that earned national headlines and rave reviews for the state’s politicians, the state agency tasked with actually publishing the data has continued to miss deadlines with no explanation.
Now, the ACLU of Florida has filed suit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the hopes that a judge will force the agency, along with all the other agencies involved, to finally comply with the 2018 law.
“When it comes to the CJDT [criminal-justice data transparency] Law, legal mandates, aspirations, and expectations have become divorced from reality,” the lawsuit said.
First, FDLE was supposed to publish its criminal-justice data in January 2019. Then in March 2019. Then after missing both of those deadlines, the state set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2020.
As of August 2021, nearly three years after the first deadline, the state still doesn’t have a timeline for when it expects to publish the data.
Failure to comply with the law brought a promised punishment: Any law-enforcement agency that didn’t provide the data would become “ineligible to receive funding from the General Appropriations Act, any state grant program administered by the Department of Law Enforcement, or any other state agency for 5 years after the date of noncompliance.”
If the law were taken literally, the state would have to defund all law enforcement. In reality, that punishment, like so much else in the law, was a fiction. In Florida, a law likely can’t actually be used to bind future legislatures from appropriating funds, and the state isn’t going to punish a state agency for failing to comply by completely dismantling the agency.
From the beginning, FDLE never intended to meet its required deadlines, budget documents show. By Oct. 2018, the agency told the Florida Legislature, which had just mandated FDLE produce all the data by 2019, that it planned to fully publish the data by June 2023, four years behind schedule.
The lack of data, particularly last year, has hampered efforts to hold government accountable and fix broken systems, said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican.
When the pandemic shut down transfers from county jails to state prisons, the lack of state data meant there was no way to track the jail population totals in real-time as some populations shrank and others surged.
When police across the state arrested protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the lack of a state database made it impossible to compare how county judges dealt with protesters, as some, including all in Jacksonville, were forced to pay bonds before release.
When courts shut down, prosecutors decided when to drop cases, negotiate plea deals or keep someone waiting in jail for a year or longer awaiting trial. But there was no statewide database to see how prosecutors made those decisions.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature has passed new laws affecting bond amounts, protest rights and jail populations.
And last year, when 19 of 20 state attorneys were up for election, voters didn’t have the data necessary to measure the policies of the state’s elected prosecutors.
“We spent tens of millions of dollars on this data program that we’ve based zero decisions off of, that we got no data from,” Brandes said. “We should be holding their feet to the fire and letting people go. This isn’t that complicated.”
Benjamin Stevenson, one of the ACLU of Florida attorneys working on the case, said the delay are “further proof they’re not prioritizing transparency. The reason the legislature identified it as so important is they do need data to identify what laws need to be changed. They wanted the data. They wanted the information. They’re not getting the information, thus their ability to reform criminal justice is also stalled.”
Last month, before the lawsuit was filed, FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told The Tributary that it could now receive data from the agencies mandated to send data to FDLE, which includes sheriff’s offices, county clerks, state attorneys, public defenders and the state prison system.
“The information you see on the Criminal Justice Data Transparency website is the information we’ve received for production,” she said in an email. “It should be noted creating a process that accurately collects and reports data from multiple disparate systems, as well as the systems to maintain and provide the data for public consumption, requires a significant investment of time and resources from local and state entities. As such, we work with the contributors on a daily basis and routinely assist them with connectivity and technical questions. Because every contributor uses different technology and have different vendor supported systems, solutions are different for every contributor.”
Plessinger said that more than 75 agencies were “currently working toward production and we are working daily to bring more on board.” She didn’t provide a timeline for when the data would be available.
The Duval County Clerk of Court is one of those agencies, according to clerk’s spokesman Brian Corrigan.
“We still await FDLE’s request for us to go live with the actual data transfer of the new fields,” Corrigan said. “Duval will be ready whenever FDLE asks for the transfer to be initiated.”
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, similar to the county clerk, is in a testing stage and ready to submit data whenever FDLE is ready to publish it, said Assistant Chief Chris Brown.
Stevenson said regardless of FDLE’s excuses, there’s no reason to miss deadlines for more than two years. “They can dress it up however they want. Any answer – any reasonable answer is, ‘We have not prioritized transparency period.'”
Jackie Azis, another ACLU of Florida lawyer working on the case, said it was particularly inexcusable to miss out on having the data for 2020’s elections. “This was very much a lost opportunity for voters to make more informed decisions when deciding on their representatives, whether that be their sheriff or state attorney or public defender or their clerk.”
The lawsuit also named the Broward clerk, the Broward sheriff and the state prison system, demanding they transmit data to FDLE as required under the law and provide that same data to the public.
The lawsuit was partly in response to refusals by those agencies to provide records requested by the ACLU of Florida. The lawsuit also made heavy use of research from a story I wrote a year ago for The Florida Times-Union about FDLE’s failure to meet its deadlines.
At the time, then-State Attorney Bill Cervone said FDLE had not communicated with the agencies that needed to report data to FDLE, and then all of a sudden, FDLE made “a fabulous presentation” with a “fake dashboard” that called itself the “criminal justice data transparency dashboard,” except it featured none of the data actually mentioned in the law.
“It was clearly to be illustrative only and not reliable,” he said last year.
That dashboard is still up, though it has changed several times, but it continues to feature only broad, vague and useless data from a sliver of counties.
The actual database mandated in the law was supposed to be a free, searchable, easy-to-use system that provided individual case data, reporting defendants’ bond amounts and their charges. It would tell us how many people are in jails and prisons. It would tell us which state attorneys were dropping charges and which ones were enhancing them.
It was intended to be a microscopic look at the granular information in every misdemeanor and felony case in the state. The law was also designed to expose systemic biases.
Currently, the dashboard has none of this information.
“It’s hard to imagine how you can go three years now without producing one piece of data the public can use to make decisions with,” Sen. Brandes said. “It is basically malpractice. But this is par for the course for FDLE.”
Speaker Chris Sprowls, who shepherded the law as a then-committee chairman, once heralded it as a shining achievement. He didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story, but when the law first passed, he said it would guide the Legislature’s future decisions.
“If we’re going to make overhauls or changes, we should know how that impacts everyday people and make decisions based on the facts,” he said last year. “Right now, what you have, in large part in criminal justice, is people throwing out narratives from one side or the other that doesn’t tell the entire story.”