The Florida Legislature has passed a multifaceted criminal-justice bill that can be described in the vernacular as a two-fer.
The bill's official name — the committee substitute for the committee substitute for Senate Bill 1392 — recognizes that the legislation was subject to give-and-take and compromise.
It's a mash-up that blends an effort in the House of Representatives to reform criminal-justice databases and a movement in the Senate to provide alternatives to arrest and incarceration for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses.
The good news is that both initiatives are warranted and represent progress.
In the House, Rep. Chris Sprowls — a Republican from Palm Harbor and chairman of the Judiciary Committee — was the force behind provisions to significantly improve and enhance access to information related to arrests, plea bargains and sentences.
As we wrote in January and in subsequent editorials, the existing databases in Florida are inadequate and incompatible — making it inordinately difficult to assess whether disparities in outcomes occur and to determine how the system might be made more effective.
For instance, the Offender Based Transaction System database relied upon by the courts has not included the name of the defendant or the criminal case number; those shortcomings make analysis difficult, requiring decoding and other laborious tasks. The OBTS has not included sentencing score sheets, which are critical to understanding the decisions of prosecutors and judges; furthermore, the score sheets have not included the defendant’s race.
The bill passed by the Legislature seeks to eliminate those deficiencies. Score sheets, for example, will be included in the database in digital form. The legislation requires a wealth of other information to be input and tracked — data that should help local and state officials better manage county-jail and state-prison populations.
And, just as important, the bill mandates that the comprehensive database be accurate, comparable, transferable, readily usable and publicly accessible; a Herald-Tribune news series focused on sentencing disparities found that the existing database lacked all of those features.
The legislation calls upon virtually all institutional participants in the criminal-justice system to provide information that will be compiled and presented by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The requirements will be significant but, to their credit, the chief judge and administrator of the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee and Sarasota counties, favor these enhancements.
An upgraded, useful database will provide additional value in light of the bill's second component, which has been championed by Sen. Jeff Brandes. A Republican from Pinellas County and influential member of the Committee on Criminal Justice, Brandes led the effort for state law to authorize the use of civil citations as alternatives to arrest for certain crimes. The law also expands the potential for diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration in the county jail for specific nonviolent offenses.
The legislation gives law enforcement agencies and courts leeway to craft, implement and oversee these endeavors. If provided judiciously and equitably, these options could benefit Florida.
The database improvements and diversion programs are welcome, complementary attempts to commence reform of Florida's justice system, promote good decision-making, achieve justice and enhance accountability.