Everything has a price — or so it is said.
But what is the “price” that the public or civic groups should have to pay for government transparency? What is the right “price” for a public record?
Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz thinks he knows — and he’s put the price tag at $1.2 million to fulfill a public records request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which is looking at critical aspects of our criminal justice system, including racial bias in prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations and the testimony of untrustworthy police officers. Information, by the way, that has already been provided by the rest of the state’s district attorneys for their respective jurisdictions, either for free or at nominal charges.
After more than a year of back and forth, the ACLU decided to take the issue to court. It shouldn’t have had to, but it did — and just in time for Sunshine Week, a week meant to celebrate open and transparent government.
It’s a week particularly sacred to journalists, who battle every day to ask the right questions, to seek out the right documents, to kick open the closed doors of too many public agencies just to keep readers informed about how their government works. But, clearly, we’re not alone in that task.
Local ACLU lawyers have been collecting public records from all of the state’s district attorneys as part of an accountability project, including, as noted in the lawsuit filed last week, information from the district attorneys’ case management databases, along with the offices’ “allocation of financial resources, approach to criminal law reform, and responses to prosecutorial and police misconduct.”
“There are many areas in which prosecutors have discretion, and there should be some policies and plans in place around how that discretion is used,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program.
And so the ACLU will be looking at racial disparities in bail and sentencing and the DAs’ so-called Brady List — a list of police officers whose testimony has proved so unreliable in the past that their involvement in a case must be disclosed to criminal defendants and their lawyers.
This isn’t the first time Cruz has been sued for failing to produce public records.
More than a year ago, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against him in a case brought by Attorney General Maura Healey — involving records requests made by the Globe for the DA’s case management system (known as DAMION). The court found that “a request such as this, which requires the extraction of categories of information from an existing database, does not impose burdens on public record holders that exceed what is required under the public records law.”
That decision came down a year ago. According to a spokesperson for Cruz, the information was sent to the Globe last Oct. 5, but “due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and simple human oversight the office did not send a copy of this same information to the ACLU.”
It wasn’t until the ACLU suit was filed that Cruz’s office finally sent over those records, Hall said.
By contrast, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan has put her office’s DAMION files online.
Back in January 2020, Cruz’s office gave ACLU lawyers a “good faith estimate” to comply with their records request, of $1,225,000, insisting it would take one employee 49,000 hours of work billed at $25 an hour. (Yes, that would be more than five and a half years of 24-hour days.)
In a statement issued this week, Cruz’s office said it has “now provided to the ACLU exhaustive data,” including information on grant and forfeiture programs, community engagement, and victim support, and that the lawsuit is “unnecessary.”
It’s certainly not the only fight for transparency these days — the battle for more disclosure about committee votes on Beacon Hill, for example, goes on and on. But in a year when policing and racial justice have been front and center, you’d think requests that shed some light on how justice is dispensed in Plymouth County would be important enough to warrant more than the flurry of paperwork and excuses that Cruz’s office has contributed to the cause.
Data can be a powerful tool in the cause of racial justice — but only if exposed to the bright light of day. As Hall noted, DAs wield a great deal of power in relatively low-profile elected offices. The public records that shed light on how they wield that power are no small thing. They are the building blocks of justice. And they cry out for a good dose of sunshine.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.