On any given day in 2009, when buses departed Hillsborough County's jails and headed for the Big House — state prison — 55 percent of the passengers were African-Americans.
What is the problem with that? Statistics from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office show that whites are consistently arrested more than African-Americans in Hillsborough County, yet they go to prison far less percentagewise.
Hillsborough's numbers are higher than others. Statewide, 49.7 percent of those in prison are African-Americans. And in Pasco County, African-Americans accounted for 9.8 percent of those arrested and 8.6 of those sent to the prison, according to the Pasco Sheriff's Office.
The question is: What accounts for this horrific racial disparity in Hillsborough?
W. James Favorite, community activist and the pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, has a theory. He says Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober's office is to blame.
"These numbers only prove what we already know. This is because Mr. Ober's office is aggressively charging and prosecuting African-Americans."
I asked Ober for a response. He had this to say: "It has always been my personal policy and that of my office not prosecute on the basis of race or gender. Last year, around 126,000 possible criminal cases were brought to my office. The office and I reviewed every case objectively before it was decided if a prosecution was warranted," he said, adding, "I would fire any employee who brings up race and gender in my office."
As a reader, you should know that there has been tension between Favorite and Ober for years. Aside from being the pastor at Beulah, Favorite is also the leader of Pastors on Patrol, a group of Tampa ministers who focus on community issues. Last fall, Ober spoke at one of their gatherings. The scene could only be described as confrontational and ugly. Allegations about Ober's office and African-American convictions caused the ruckus. I can't imagine that Ober would ever attend again.
I have personally known and had dealings with Ober for over 10 years. I would never believe that he is a racist bent on prosecuting African-Americans.
That said, I do think his office shares responsibility for the racial disparity of those going to prison. Here are two reasons: First, Ober's office seems insensitive and distant toward the community. His people either aren't aware or don't care to be aware of the gross inequalities that resulted from his office's institutional and systematic way of doing business with African-Americans. Prosecutors may have a 1930s mind-set, knowing that if the defendant's name is Willie or Leroy, chances are he won't have many connections or the resources to hire Barry Cohen.
Second, there is blame for not hiring more minorities to be representative of the community that Ober's office prosecutes — but should also serve.
So what are some solutions to this problem in our county? I have a few ideas.
1. See positive interaction between Ober and Favorite, and get community representatives to study and monitor the situation.
2. Ober's office should hire a non-prosecutor for outreach in the community.
3. The African-American community must take some responsibility.
To that end, I agree with Janice MacLeod, of the Hillsborough Criminal Justice Liaison Office. "People need to learn more and become better educated with the utilization of the diversion programs and how the system works," MacLeod says.
As African-Americans, we also should be proactive in providing mentorship for the youths from one-parent families. And people on probation should stop taking their children with them when visiting their probation officers. It sends the signal early in life that this is a "norm."
Tampa's African-American community is not blameless. Many times, we are quick to point downtown for blame, but slow to work on the problem.
But the issue is complex.
Is skin color a factor in determining if you will go to your house or to the Big House after court? Obviously, the numbers say yes.
Al Mccray can be reached at [email protected]