Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Judicial Information Suppression

originally published September 24, 2009

In The First Step to Change, I said that the knowledge that must drive improvements in the criminal justice system is knowledge.

And standing squarely in the way of knowledge is the judiciary.

Not the individual judges sitting on their benches, but the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), the Annapolis bureaucracy that guards its Judicial Information Systems (JIS) database like Iran guards its nuclear program.

Take, for example, DASHBOARD, a new software developed by the state. DASHBOARD compiles data from many different criminal justice sources into a single report that allows police to immediately pull up information about criminals—photos, criminal backgrounds, traffic records, arrest warrants and so forth. This, together with the hardware to access it, should significantly improve police decision-making on the street. (See "City police to get smart phones," Baltimore Sun, Sept. 17.)

But there’s a glaring omission: warrants issued by judges and recorded in JIS are not included. JIS contains an electronic record of criminal cases, from the initiation of charges to the final outcomes. While other state agencies have provided their data to DASHBOARD, the judiciary has not. JIS warrant information is only “in discussion.” So if a judge issues an arrest warrant that appears only in JIS, the cop on the street won’t know about it and may let a criminal get away.

Ridiculous. And typical of the AOC. Everyone who needs JIS data meets the same stone wall, whatever their qualifications or need for data.

When PhD researcher Shawn Flower was asked to do a study that compared jury trial outcomes in Baltimore city to other counties, she approached the AOC to obtain data. No-can-do, they told her—unless she wanted to pay a prohibitive fee of $19,000. She could only obtain docket numbers which she had to manually look up in Case Search, the public access website that is wholly unsuited to research.

This forced Flower to expend more hours to research far fewer cases then she originally intended. While her study was statistically valid, Flower was attacked by State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy who, because she didn’t like the outcome, accused Flower of studying too few cases. In fact, Flower could have studied 100% of jury trials had the judiciary cooperated.

The AOC justified its bogus fee on the grounds that they had to write special computer programs to obtain the information. Agencies typically inflate fees to discourage those who seek information. But this fee was even more revealing, because it meant that the AOC must not do or permit any research at all. Otherwise they would not have to create a new, $19,000 program to search for such basic information as jury trial outcomes.

It also underscores the judiciary’s attitude. When I approached the AOC with a study on violent criminals that required no work on their part, they couldn’t require a ridiculous fee. So they denied my request claiming that I would have access to privileged information (of which there is very little in JIS.) I offered to demonstrate how the software I would use did not seek or use privileged information. No, they said. And when a government agency with which I was working made the request, they still said no. No, no, no. It’s the only word they know.

The “privileged information” excuse is as bogus as their fee. As an official admitted, JIS can supply a code that allows access to non-privileged information. They just don’t want to.

In stark contrast to the judiciary, the state Criminal Justice Information System works with researchers all the time. They have a committee to review research requests, and they supply data under confidentiality agreements, even though they maintain much more privileged information than JIS, such as criminal records. The AOC has no such committee, and appears to care less.

Ironically, if the recalcitrant party was some other state agency, the judiciary would force it to cooperate. Maryland law clearly supports public access to electronic court records. And researchers provide a special public service in measuring what is happening in our criminal justice system. It isn’t the law that prevents access to JIS data, it’s attitude.

But if anyone ever challenged that attitude in court, the judiciary would decide its own case. And supposing a fair, courageous trial judge could be found, the case could be appealed all the way to the Court of Appeals, over which Chief Judge Robert Bell presides.

The same Judge Bell who presides over the Administrative Office of the Courts and JIS. The responsibility for secreting court data that could be used to improve the criminal justice system begins and ends with him.

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