A much-heralded criminal justice database may not be complete by the beginning of 2020

Republican Rep. Paul Renner
Republican Rep. Paul Renner

A critical database of “unprecedented levels of transparency” in tracking criminal information may not be ready for public consumption at the beginning of next year.

Two Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee were dissatisfied about that Tuesday, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement official said the project would likely miss its deadline.

The Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2018 to establish a database that would track a criminal defendant’s activity at each part of the criminal justice system. It would be hailed the most transparent criminal justice system in the country, once implemented, allowing every citizen in the state to access criminal information.

The database was originally scheduled to go live in July, but the Legislature moved the deadline for completion this spring to January 1, 2020.

“Will you be able to meet the January 1, 2020 deadline?” Hillsborough County Rep. Fentrice Driskell asked.

Charles Schaeffer, the director of Criminal Justice Information Services Division for the FDLE, said that because of funding issues, it wasn’t likely the agency would be able to collect all the data needed from sheriffs, court clerks, prosecutors, public defenders and jail officials.

“I will give you what I have,” Schaeffer said, adding that the FDLE already has “millions of records” in its existing repository.

Schaeffer also said that the agency needs to hire more employees  who must undergo a criminal background check, which takes six to eight weeks.

Driskell said she wanted a timeline, saying she wasn’t getting a sense of urgency in the department.

“We have a sense of urgency where I work,” Schaeffer said sharply, reiterating that the agency is doing the best it can with current resources.

But those comments felt “a little underwhelming to” to St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond. “I just want to have us meet the deadline.”

While the Legislature made incremental steps on criminal justice reform in the 2019 spring session, many advocates still believe Florida is far behind other states with conservative-led legislatures such as Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

But Republicans such as incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls say creating the database is critical in determining what is truly in need of reform, a stance echoed on Tuesday by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Paul Renner.

“Why is this important?” Renner asked. “If we’re going to make real criminal justice reform policy, we have to have good data.”

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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