ACLU Sues Florida’s Criminal Justice System – Demands Data Transparency

September 13, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

A lawsuit has recently been filed in the Broward Circuit City Court; an action taken by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Why sue? This measure was taken by the ACLU in response to what they claim has been a failure of state and local officials to follow the 2018 Criminal Justice Data Transparency law (CJDT).

The law imposed in 2018 is meant to implement the construction of a public database that tracks how justice is delivered by authorities across the state. The law was approved after the examination of sentencing against Black defendants, which was claimed to have a particular bias.

The aftermath of the George Floyd murder pushed lawmakers to create a new rule that forces police departments to report their use-of-force incidents to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). This new law is meant to hold law enforcement agencies accountable by voluntarily submitting use-of-force data. Simply put, a uniform directory should contain information on arrests, bail proceedings, and criminal sentencing which can be searched through the FDLE’s website by anyone. 

So, who exactly is making a complaint, and what were the terms of the imposed lawsuit?

What is the ACLU?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to defend and protect the constitutional rights and liberties of people across the nation. The ACLU works with communities and legislatures daily in court. They formed in 1920 and have since grown to have over 1.84 million members with offices across the U.S.

The ACLU of Florida is the state affiliate of the national organization and has several offices across the state. The mission for the ACLU of Florida is to help provide a fair and just state, where people are free and equal under the law, and live with dignity.

The principals and values of the Florida ACLU are as follows:

  • To value justice and ensure people are treated with equality and dignity under the law.
  • To value liberty and ensure people have self-autonomy, freedom from suppression and the freedom of choice.
  • To value democracy and ensure people’s voices can be heard while participating in decision making.
  • Following non-partisanship, making sure their work is guided by the values instead of a specific political party.
  • To center the voices and leadership of impacted people.
  • To highlight equity and inclusion by providing a culture of belonging.
  • To highlight integrated advocacy, knowing that the mission can be achieved by using multiple tools and tactics.

What is the 2018 Transparency Law?

In the state of Florida, criminal justice information is considered public information. Records can be obtained under public records in agreement for research purposes or under the agency’s discretion. In 2018, a bill was passed in effort to further criminal justice data transparency across the state. Various data points such as the defendant’s name, address, date of alleged offense, offense type, fees, bail, etc. are all meant to be included under the criminal justice data collection process. The bill would require the data to be transferred to the FDLE and made accessible to the public.

According to Fla. Statute 943.6871, the department must collect, maintain, and manage data submitted by local and state entities. Specific identities should be made for each criminal case from the clerk of court. The criminal justice data sharing should be promoted by providing the data to make it comparable, transferable, and readily available for use. The database should be created in an open and modern format that is easily accessible. The database should allow the public the ability to search each element of data by county, judicial court, or unique identifier. The data provided by the clerks of court should be of quality and help the dissemination of accurate, valid, reliable, and complete criminal justice data.  

There were set dates presented in the bill for expectations outlined, including the development of a specific uniform for the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Systems Council for  arrest affidavits to be used by each state, county, and law enforcement agency by October 1, 2019, to facilitate complete, accurate, and timely collections of data from each criminal offense arrest.

In addition, The Florida Senate page highlights other specifics proposed by the bill:

  • The Department of Corrections must include information on its annual reports on offense types and recidivism rate.
  • Encourages the implementation of prearrest diversion programs for certain offenders.
  • Requires pretrial release programs to provide annual reports on the types of criminal charges of defendants who were:
    • Accepted into the pretrial release program in general,
    • Accepted who had to pay bail or bond,
    • Accepted with no prior criminal convictions, and
    • The number of defendants that the pretrial release program tool was not used.

Why Sue?

Although the 2018 bill very clearly lays out the expectations of the data collection law, the ACLU claims that the state of Florida has not followed it. The state and local criminal justice agencies have not complied with providing the accessible, accurate data that the law imposes, according to the ACLU.

Before the lawsuit was made, the ACLU of Florida requested records that followed the data collection law. However, they found that the FDLE had not yet created the database, and that no such records existed. Law enforcement agencies are either not collecting the proper data, or not reporting it to the FDLE. The FDLE is then not publishing any information they have received, if any has been sent. The system is then not showing itself to be a model of uniform criminal justice data collection and going directly against the law’s legislative intent.

In the formal complaint, the ACLU of Florida calls out the Clerk, Sheriff, FDLE and FDOC as being in violation of the Fla. Statute § 900.05(3) by not submitting the data asked of them. The ACLU asserts that there is a need for the Court to declare the FDLE as being non-compliant with the 2018 CJDT law. The ACLU demands a trial by jury on all the issues presented. To read the full complaint, click here.

If the data was provided and easily accessible, the ACLU and the public could be more aware of when racial bias or discrimination of any kind taints the legal system. This could create a long-term impact on the transparency of Florida’s criminal justice system, which is why the ACLU is pursuing a lawsuit to hold the responsible groups liable.

The main issue is that the lack of data available means the lack of education for the public. To make a more equal and cohesive state, educating people on how criminal just processes work is an important task. The ACLU claims that it will continue to be a difficult pathway to reform in the justice system until the called upon services can follow the law and provide the comprehensive data.

ACLU attorney Jackie Aziz described how Florida has been awaiting the new data collection law to provide much needed transparency in the justice system. Discrimination and racial bias are in a desperate need for correction, for which this law could be a step in the right direction if used correctly. “Florida was supposed to lead the country, but [so far] it has utterly failed.”

This article was written by Karissa Key

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