Florida State’s Attorneys to combat racial disparity with data, transparency

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Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and Jacksonville’s Melissa Nelson Thursday joined prosecutors from around the country to announce new initiatives aimed at accountability and reducing racial disparity in the justice system.

The two participated in the Prosecutorial Performance Indicator project aimed at using detailed data sets to track the success of prosecutor offices and how those offices serve the community.

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Racial disparity in the Florida criminal justice system is nothing new.

Data from the Vera institute of Justice found the Black community represents only 17 percent of the state residents, but 47 percent of the state’s prison population.

Vera Institute

Prosecutors now hope unprecedented deep dives into data and tracking can help shift culture and bridge gaps.

Don Stemen of Chicago’s Loyola University worked with prosecutors on the project to identify new ways to measure success outside of filed cases and conviction rates.

“As more prosecutors promote a new vision of justice for the future, having a comprehensive set of measures of performance is really critical to bring about that change and for helping that kind of cultural change the elected prosecutors have talked about today,” Stemen said.

Stemen, who worked with a number of organizations including Florida International University and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety & Justice Challenge, said PPI measurements redefine how prosecutors measure success.

“Historically, we have been left with gauging success — as either individual prosecutor or collectively an office — by number of files we work through, by convictions, or the rate of conviction we might report,” State Attorney of Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit Melissa Nelson said.

But Nelson said that’s doesn’t tell the whole story.

Enter: data.

The PPI project looks at 55 indicators to measure performance toward the goals of capacity and efficiency, community safety and well-being and fairness and justice. 

“We can now look at our fairness and evaluate it,” Nelson said.

Warren and Nelson plan to display the data via public-facing dashboards on their offices’ websites by the end of the year. Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County also participated in the project and got its dashboard up last month.

Milwaukee’s dashboard shows graphs tracking deferred prosecution by race, rejection rates for felony cases, percentage of cases with sentences and how quickly victims are contacted by advocates.

Hillsborough’s Warren said using data is an unprecedented opportunity.

“We’re redefining the ways we measure success,” Warren said. “That’s gonna help us to maximize public safety and enhance fairness to achieve better outcomes in connection with charging, diversion and sentencing.”

While the data won’t solve problems itself, Warren said it can be used to identify blind spots and problematic areas to allow prosecutors a chance at reevaluating their approaches.

“What it does is it reveals problems to us in those disparities,” he said. “This is part of a broader trend where the data is giving us the information we need to identify problems and ask the critical questions to solve them.”

And, Warren said, he hopes sharing the data with the public creates transparency, particularly in acknowledging that the criminal justice system is still a work in progress.

“We are trying to identify those problems and find solutions.”