Martina Brady / Staff Writer
Criminologists from FIU and Loyola University of Chicago (LUC) teamed up to launch Florida’s first prosecutorial data dashboards for two Florida counties.
This data, which has never before been publicly available in the state of Florida, allows communities to evaluate the performance of their law enforcement departments using Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (PPIs).
The dashboard’s initiative is to promote accountability in the judicial process, according to a press release by the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office.
“Transparency builds trust. It’s that simple,” said Warren, in the press release. “Now, more than ever, we need to make sure everyone from every neighborhood and every background can have trust in their justice system.”
To uncover this data, the criminologists studied hundreds of thousands of legal files from Hillsborough County and Florida’s Fourth Circuit in Jacksonville. The team also interviewed county prosecutors and worked with both offices to create the dashboard.
According to the Hillsborough County dashboard, compared to national averages, Black crime victims in December 2019 were nearly six percent more likely to have their cases dismissed. On the other hand, Hispanic victims were over two percent less likely to have their cases dismissed in the same time period.
Screenshot of PPIs showing case dismissal differences by victim race and ethnicity.
According to the dashboard website, prosecutors would have missed the discrepancy without tracking this data.
FIU Criminology associate professor Besiki Luka Kutateladze designed the dashboard.
“Without the data we don’t know what’s happening,” said Kutateladze. “Unless you publish data, one there is no transparency, accountability, but more importantly, there is an opportunity to ask good and important questions that may trigger meaningful policy changes.”
The Fourth Circuit dashboard shows that for felony cases, the average number of days from filing to disposition has nearly doubled since 2018. According to the site, this measure indicates “potential areas for efficiency improvement.”
Additionally, the percentage of sexual assault filings that resulted in convictions dropped from 95 to 83 percent since 2019.
The team of criminologists created Prosecutorial Performance Indicators (PPIs), or metrics to evaluate the performance of each office. PPIs include crime reduction, racial inequality and juvenile justice reform.
He came up with a method in 2008 when working with the Chief Justice of Liberia, and tried to convince him to apply these measures to the courts.
Kutaleladze told PantherNOW, “I was trying to convince him that he needs to adopt the rule of law measures to assess performance of the courts and the general judiciary.”
Kutateladze says the U.S. uses traditional metrics of conviction rate and sentence lengths to judge the effectiveness of a prosecution, while overlooking effects on community health and well-being.
He received a $1.7 million MacArthur Foundation grant in 2016 to begin analyzing PPIs.
Melba Pearson, former prosecutor and candidate for Miami-Dade State Attorney, has been part of the PPI project since September of 2020. Her passion for prosecutorial data stemmed from her commitment to racial justice.
“I was a prosecutor here in Miami Dade for close to 16 years, Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida for three years, said Pearson. “The issues of prosecutorial reform, as well as using data as a tool to fight for racial justice was something that was part of my career, part of my life’s path.”
Pearson first met Kutateladze four years ago, when she served as Deputy Director of the ACLU. Then, she joined his team after losing her 2020 bid for Miami-Dade State Attorney.
“On election night [Kutateladze] reached out to me and was like ‘Oh, sorry, you lost, can we talk?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t have a whole lot of plans,’” said Pearson.
According to Kutateladze, a challenge in developing the dashboards was convincing prosecutors that they needed to pay attention to data.
“We have had multiple initial conversations where people are like, ‘I don’t want data, data is [going to] bias me, every case is unique, I don’t need data, I’m not a statistician, I didn’t go to law school to read numbers,’” said Kutateladze.
He says prosecutors assume making the best decision on a unique case leads to long-term positive outcomes. However, Kutateladze believes focusing on individual cases without considering racial and ethinic inequalities present in communities leads to system variants.
“You don’t realize that consideration of prior record may be actually fueling the disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Kutateladze. “Because their neighborhoods are so heavily policed, [minorities] are more likely to have a criminal record prior arrest, and that is going to disadvantage them.”
With this, Pearson believes that the data-phobia, or distrust in data, can be caused by a fear of change in traditional measures of success.
“A lot of prosecutors look at success through the lens of how many convictions you get… as opposed to how many people you sent to diversion and they successfully completed it,” said Pearson.
She noted some of the resistance stems from concerns about racism. Prosecutors feared being called racist if data revealed racial disparities.
“Nobody wants to be called a racist, right? I think that’s the fear,” she said. “Well, if we come in, and we see that there’s racial disparities, we’re basically saying, you’re all racist.”
However, Pearson says racial disparities in prosecutorial data do not necessarily directly indicate racism among prosecutors or law enforcement.
“You can have policies that may be race-neutral on their face, but the way it ends up playing out, it ends up disproportionately harming certain communities,” said Pearson. “If you don’t intend to discriminate, and you see that your policies are resulting in harm to a group of people, then you should want to know and want to fix it.”
As a black woman working in the criminal justice system, Pearson explained she is no stranger to racism.
“When you have a situation where… a police officer did something that is inappropriate, you have to take that into consideration in how the case should be handled,” said Pearson. “A black prosecutor may recognise very quickly what’s going on…. but I think sometimes white prosecutors may be more challenged, or may not really realise that there’s racist intent happening.”
By helping prosecutors overcome data-phobia, Kutateladze and Pearson hope they can connect unique cases with concerns such as racial disparities. In turn, State Attorney offices can make better decisions and reduce inequalities within the judicial system.
Along with the dashboards in Tampa and Jacksonville, the PPI team has launched dashboards in Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI. The team hopes to expand the initiative.
“We just finished our first initial pilot sites of the PPI dashboard. The initial sites were Tampa, Jacksonville, Chicago, Milwaukee,” said Pearson. “And now we’re working on the next wave of sites that we’ll be bringing on board, as well as trying to expand the project to include community engagement.”
While the PPI team worked with prosecutors to introduce new performance measures, community voices were still missing from the discussion.
“There may be underlying issues that the elected [are] not aware of, or there may be issues that have been discussed, but have not been quantified other than through… personal experience,” said Pearson.