Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Florida’s broken sentencing system

From the Herald Tribune:

Justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida.

Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. Then came Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

Now, prejudice wears a black robe.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found.

They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies.

They give blacks more time behind bars — sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.

Florida lawmakers have struggled for 30 years to create a more equitable system.

Points are now used to calculate sentences based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record and a host of other factors. The idea is to punish criminals in Pensacola the same as those in Key West — no matter their race, gender or wealth.

But the point system has not stopped discrimination.

In Manatee County, judges sentence whites convicted of felony drug possession to an average of five months behind bars.

They give blacks with identical charges and records more than a year.

Judges in the Florida Panhandle county of Okaloosa sentence whites to nearly five months for battery.

They lock up blacks for almost a year.

 

Along the state’s northeast shore, judges in Flagler County put blacks convicted of armed robbery away for nearly triple the time.

“It’s unconscionable,” said Wengay Newton Sr., a former St. Petersburg city commissioner and Democrat, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November. “That’s like running a red light in a white car and your ticket is $100 and running a red light in a black car and your ticket is $300.”

The Herald-Tribune spent a year reviewing tens of millions of records in two state databases — one compiled by the state’s court clerks that tracks criminal cases through every stage of the justice system and the other by the Florida Department of Corrections that notes points scored by felons at sentencing.

Reporters examined more than 85,000 criminal appeals, read through boxes of court documents and crossed the state to interview more than 100 legal experts, advocates and criminal defendants.

The newspaper also built a first-of-its-kind database of Florida’s criminal judges to compare sentencing patterns based on everything from a judge's age and previous work experience to race and political affiliation.

No news organization, university or government agency has ever done such a comprehensive study of sentences handed down by individual judges on a statewide scale.

Read this report in its entirety at the Herald Tribune