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Criminal case “extract” data used to be free. Now it costs hundreds a month. Journalists are calling on the AOC to reinstate the old policy.

Chief Justice Paul Newby (left) and Administrative Office of the Courts Director Andrew Heath (right) were the recipients of a recent letter from  journalism outlets complaining about newly imposed fees on parties seeking access to criminal justice records.

Reporters and editors from four news outlets signed onto a letter with the NC Open Government Coalition calling on the Administrative Office of the Courts to return to publishing a criminal case dataset for free that officials now charge money for.

Clerks in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties enter dozens of data points into the Automated/Criminal Infractions System (known as ACIS) after a criminal case is docketed. Those points include demographics about the defendant like their race and age, whether their case was dismissed or reached a verdict and whether a defendant posted a bond, and how much it was.

“ACIS tells the story of every criminal matter processed in the State of North Carolina,” the Open Government Coalition wrote in a post published this month.

Currently, members of the public can walk into a county courthouse, find the terminal that stores the data, and find information on individual cases. But thanks to a recent policy change, the Administrative Office of the Courts no longer provides a sample of the data, or “extract,” from all 100 counties free of charge.

Journalists used to use the extract data to report on policing and criminal case disposition trends, and the ways that race and gender intersect in involvement in the criminal legal system. Now, in order to get the data reporters must register for the Remote Public Access Program, which costs hundreds of dollars a month. Considering the state of local journalism, that’s a hefty price for cash-strapped newsrooms.

In an unsigned letter the AOC told the News & Observer it wasn’t providing the extract anymore “in order to protect the interests of persons qualifying for expunctions,” citing a bill that passed the General Assembly in 2021 aimed at reducing the collateral consequences of a person’s involvement in the courts system.

The ACIS extract is “the lifeblood of rigorous, data-driven reporting about the criminal justice system,” the Open Government Coalition argued, adding that it is the government’s responsibility to redact or withhold records that should be withheld under laws like the 2021 law.

“The rest of the information remains public record, and the AOC has a long track record of providing this data upon request,” the Open Government Coalition wrote in a letter sent to the AOC on Sept. 9, joined by journalists from Carolina Public Press, The News & Observer, WUNC and The Charlotte Observer.

The letter, which is addressed to the head of the AOC, Chief Justice Paul Newby, notes that the AOC still gives the data to vendors who then turn around and sell it, “negating any argument that it cannot be provided with expunction related information removed.” Plus, they argue, the public can still view the data on terminals in county courthouses across the state.

Such data is critical for the public’s understanding of, and trust in, the justice system, the letter claims.

“Our concern is that the AOC is changing protocols to force the public, and news organizations specifically, to ‘purchase’ public records which the General Assembly made clear are ‘the property of the people.'”

Here’s a link to the letter. 

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Criminal case “extract” data used to be free. Now it costs hundreds a month. Journalists are calling on the AOC to reinstate the old policy.