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  1. Opinion

Column: Counting criminal justice to save money and improve public safety

Florida’s prison system will cost $2.4 billion this year.
Published May 24, 2017

Here's an idea: What if we were to collect data from our criminal justice system, like we do for hospitals and schools, and use that data to tell us more about how our system is working for us? Could we save taxpayers money and yet make our communities as safe — or safer?

The United States is the industrial world's most prolific jailer. Florida's numbers are staggering. The Sunshine State, which has one of the highest incarceration rates, will spend more than $2.4 billion this year on the state prison system. Additionally, public safety is perennially the largest item in local county budgets, largely due to jails. On any given day, Florida's jails house 50,000 people, each at an average of $64 per day, totaling more than $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars. Do we know how well those billions of dollars are working for us? We believe Floridians should have ready access to data that can show how these critical taxes are spent.

Each of us should have the ability to understand how our county's criminal justice system works and how our county compares to other counties when it comes to safety, efficiency and budget allocations. We should be able to know how equitably the system treats people who move through it. We should know about how well our taxpayer investments are doing toward reduced crime and costs.

The data points that can lead to meaningful policy study and more informed decisions don't accumulate in a vacuum. They start in our 67 counties. The counties are where, for example, a nonviolent offender may first be incarcerated and get stuck in a cycle of poverty, recidivism and dependence. Or, in contrast, where the same offender, in a neighboring county, might enter a more cost-effective alternative to incarceration — drug courts, for instance.

The counties are also where 69 percent of state prisoners are released and rearrested within three years. Simply put, the counties are the hub of our criminal justice systems, where some of the most vital justice decisions are made.

But no one has ever attempted to present criminal justice data from counties in an easy-to-use format, to better understand and compare their performance within and across states — until now.

This week a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, Measures for Justice, launches a Data Portal that offers "Measures" using county data covering cases from arrest to post-conviction. (Go to https://measuresforjustice.org/" target="_blank" > >Measures for Justice

So, for example, a review of Florida-specific data will show that the median jail stay for nonviolent misdemeanors was 60 days in 2012-13. That's double the median stay in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Does that make us twice as safe as residents of those states? Perhaps it does, or maybe it is just the result of the lack of a foundation on which to begin a more deliberate policy review.

State measurement is vital, but to understand our systems better, we must be able to drill down to the county level, like the Measures offer for the first time. For instance, in one rural county, the median time for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders was 180 days in jail. Two midsize counties are close behind at 120 days. Those numbers top every county in the state. It might be helpful for the county commission and the local sheriff to have the ability to study this data and see if those lengths of detention (and that $64 a day bed and board cost) can be better managed.

The idea here isn't to point the finger at counties. This is our first time having access to this important data; such information can be the launching point for change. It is about seeing our achievements and shortcomings and improving them by replicating better practices. But better practices can only be "better" when they are markedly improved, when we are building from something that is measured.

We are encouraged to see that the Measures for Justice are here, as they provide an important tool for bringing more accountability and transparency into criminal justice. Quite literally, "accountability" means liable to be called to count or explain. We encourage you to jump on in and explore, learn and measure what matters to you in your community.

Chelsea Murphy is the Florida director at Right on Crime, Texas Public Policy Foundation. Richard Doran is the former attorney general of Florida, a Right on Crime signatory and chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, a Florida-based think tank whose mission is to advance public safety through evidence-based practices and policies.

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