Not So Quick On Criminal Justice Transparency

So we now know how much Maryland’s legislators think judicial transparency is really worth: 

Less than $100,000. That is what was budgeted in both House and Senate Judicial Transparency bills, enough to fund one data analyst who is meant to gather data from 23 jurisdictions covering an estimated 2,700 violent crimes. 

Budgets rather than speeches show where legislators really stand. One data person shows our legislators aren’t serious about bringing transparency to Maryland criminal justice no matter what they say at impassioned press conferences. 

One data person won’t help the families of Brittaney Hayes-Smith, Dayvon Mason, Fabian Mendez or any of the other 339 homicide victims in 2021. Transparency can make a difficult and trying experience a little more manageable. It can also spotlight issues that have been accepted for too long as “just the way things are.”  

One person won’t even be able to deliver what the position calls for. We know this because, at Baltimore Witness, we gather data on every homicide and non-fatal shooting in Baltimore city alone. And, even if other jurisdictions have fewer cases, this task is far beyond one person. 

Even if the legislation had been fully-funded, real transparency and accountability were always a long shot. 

In 2018, Florida’s legislature passed what is still considered the gold standard of criminal justice transparency legislation. It was clear and definitive, with little room for those it targeted to wiggle out of their new duty.  Four years later, Floridians are still waiting for data.

In Maryland, there are three particular obstacles that would have neutered any legislation Annapolis passed.

  1. Data Gathering Systems: The state, and especially Baltimore City, doesn’t have the data gathering systems needed to meet any data collection requirement. The Baltimore Circuit Court still uses a manual process similar to a 1990’s library card system. (Please ignore claims that a new system – MDEC – being introduced at some point in the “near” future will do the job – it won’t.) 
  2. Agency Cooperation: Agency recalcitrance could be the real undoing. Since last year, Baltimore Witness has tracked every homicide and non-fatal shooting in Baltimore, gathering as much data as we can get. We recently posted some of that data, which the Judicial Transparency Act directly calls for.  (www.baltimorewitness.org) To do it, we had to fight the court and other government offices at almost every step.
  3. Validation: Even if official data is provided, can it be trusted? The office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City provides lots of accurate, but skewed, data. Relying on self-interested bodies to provide valid data and information to measure their own performance is naive at best and won’t get us any closer to true transparency or public trust.  What is needed is a way to validate the data independently. 

Those obstacles were on display at a hearing for the Senate’s proposed prosecutorial transparency legislation when half a dozen State’s Attorneys testified that they don’t have the technology, the staff, or the interest in complying. The same was said by the chief District Court judge. “Pass whatever you want, we aren’t doing it,” was the clear message.

But still, our legislators have a once in a generation chance to bring vitally needed transparency and accountability to Maryland’s criminal justice system.  If the wise folks in Annapolis were serious, there were still ways to make it work even in the face of judicial and prosecutorial resistance. 

Then came the $100,000.

Budgets vs. speeches. Political theater would be putting it nicely.