Data Fellowship Launches to Support Criminal Justice Transparency in Florida.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

How does an entire state transform the way it collects and analyzes data across the entire criminal justice system? That is the question we’re working to find out, and we need your help. Imagine a data fellowship where you’re placed in a local court clerk’s office and tasked with reshaping the way the courts collect, store, and share data; and given a chance to try new ETL approaches and retool systems to rid the world of whole collections of PDFs and data stored in images. In short, an opportunity to transform the data culture of a key sector of local government. Sound like a challenge? Read on!

There are as many local criminal justice systems in the U.S. as there are counties (3,141 in all), each system involves multiple criminal justice agencies and all record data in their own way. There is no common language, and there are no standard definitions. Worse, the data are notoriously difficult to get. In such an environment, no one can make informed policy decisions to improve public safety, reduce costs or identify patterns of inequity.

But all of this is beginning to change. Just weeks ago, Florida passed into law a bill that will make the state’s criminal justice system the most transparent in the country. The law requires the state’s 67 counties to collect the same data, record it in the same way and store it in the same public place.

This is great news, but there is a steep road ahead to achieve the data transparency the legislation wants. This is where we come in, and hopefully, where you come in!

MFJ is supporting the implementation of the new legislation, initially through a pilot in the 6th Judicial Circuit (Pasco and Pinellas counties) that will embed at least one Data Fellow within the Clerk of Courts Office of each county. We’re looking for people with a mix of coding, data wrangling, and systems change skills and experience who are also familiar with how the criminal justice system operates. We’ll be coordinating this pilot and providing air cover for the fellows, with an eye to successful implementation of the law, and hopefully flowing into a 20+ data fellow program scaling across the entire state.

What will it look like?

You’ll be doing system assessments to get a clear picture of the data captured right now, and developing plans to convert data stored in all kinds of non-structured ways — from scraping documents to image conversion and writing ETL scripts to develop quality data for local use and to share with the state agency managing the wider system.

You’ll need to work with the agency vendors (and our team) to ensure changes to current systems can be accommodated, or consider alternate routes to capturing the data. You will be working with a mix of legacy and recent technology from MS SQL Server and Oracle to proprietary CMS systems built in-house.

Fellows will need to be comfortable negotiating with partners, being a collaborator across agencies, and working in bureaucracies sometimes averse to change. Having tech chops is not enough on its own.

We’re seeking data fellows for a two-year term; this isn’t a simple task that will be over in a few months, it’s a transformational approach that will build capacity in local agencies, leaving behind a robust system that has richer data than ever before.

Photo by NASA

New Data, New Possibilities

The new data system will allow Floridians to access accurate and timely data on things like how Latinos, the largest ethnic group in Florida, are being treated by the criminal justice system; whether poor defendants who are mandated to pay cash bail are languishing in jail while their cases are resolved; or how many people are mandated to pay court fees and what proportion of them are failing to pay and are then trapped in a cycle of debt and jail time.

This new law mandates that everything will be published in a “modern, open, electronic format that is machine-readable and readily accessible to the public” on the state Department of Law Enforcement’s website.

This is your chance to shape the future of open data in a system that has been historically opaque, and to help create an example for the rest of the country to follow.

Are you up to the challenge?

Apply here.

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