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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 burgeoning prison population.

The state has the third-largest prison population in the country, at 100,000 inmates, which costs taxpayers $2.3 billion annually to support.

And the incarcerated population is aging as well as growing.

By 2023, about 27 percent of state prisoners are expected to be 65 or older, further increasing health care costs. Florida already spends over $360 million on inmate health care each year.

State legislators have begun to wrestle with these costs, but their solution could make some people squirm.

Recently, legislators decided to adjust criminal justice law policies to reflect the large quantities of collected but potentially unrelated information, also known as “Big Data,” that is generated by court statistics.

The data was compiled in a report for state legislators looking for ways to trim costs and make improvements to the prison system, following a state mandate requiring state and county courts to collect, for the first time, information on ethnicity and race in the interests of transparency.

Among the insights they found:

  • 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.

The new reporting requirements also will collect information on previously private plea deal sessions.

Changes made so far as a result of this “Big Data” analysis include:

  • Offering more sentencing options that include diversion programs rather than incarceration;
  • Returning to the parole system that was abolished in 1983 and reserving the 85 percent rule for violent offenders;
  • Dropping the mandatory minimum sentence requirement for drug trafficking if the crime did not involve a gun or violence;
  • Changing the felony theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

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 data must be balanced with personnel training, and cannot be considered a fix for every issue.

Big Data is not the same as waving a 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 in the Courtroom

Florida will be the first state to require such data reporting and transparency, surely prompting other states to follow.

But where Big Data goes from there in the criminal justice system is unclear.

A report by The Marshall Project,notes that Big Data can inform sentencing and policy-making but will never be reliable in predicting how judges with individual autonomy are likely to act.

Yet if we try to standardize sentencing to make it color blind, algorithms that may aid in sentencing, but which rely on historic sentencing information, will be predisposed to racism, as the system historically appears to be.

Civil liberties court cases are likely to be generated by big data as well, specifically the sort of mass-collecting of data that can be used to violate a person’s privacy, like license plate scanning that is employed by police at a rate of 1,800 per minute.

This vacuuming of information has not been tested extensively for violation of rights, but in some cities journalists have determined that it’s disproportionately employed in low-income areas.

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 the 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.

Douglas Parker

Douglas Parker

While it can improve responses to jury summonses, Big Data may also help to predict how jurists 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.

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 equal treatment.

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

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