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Hillsborough prosecutors dish on racial disparities, fairness for FIU study

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren speaks during a news conference in January 2018. Warren's office is participating in a two-year study from Florida International University, which will examine prosecutorial effectiveness and fairness.
Published Dec. 18, 2018

TAMPA - Hillsborough prosecutors know there are racial disparities in the criminal justice system but they don't think they can do much about them.

They believe that going after some crimes, like driving with a suspended license, is a waste of time and resources and does little to improve public safety.

They don't know how their bosses evaluate their performance, and some believe promotions are based on internal politics rather than experience or talent.

Those are some of the takeaways in a recently released report that gauges the opinions of prosecutors in four cities, including the office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. The report is part of a two-year, $1.7 million research project by Florida International University and Loyola University-Chicago, which seeks to use data to measure and improve prosecutorial performance and fairness.

"The idea is to collect data on a quarterly basis to track change," said Besiki Luka Kutateladze, the FIU criminology professor who is leading the project. "The big part of this is to get a sense from the line prosecutors of what will be a meaningful measure of prosecutorial success."

Jacksonville, Chicago, and Milwaukee are the other participating offices. All four have elected prosecutors whom the authors describe as "forward-thinking." Warren, a Democrat, vowed to seek criminal justice reforms when he campaigned for the office in 2016.

"For a generation, if not longer, our system has lacked effective methods to evaluate prosecutorial performance," Warren said in a statement. "This partnership will redefine the ways in which we measure success."

The first part of the report analyzes the way prosecutors think about their jobs. It includes responses from 22 line prosecutors in Hillsborough who were interviewed this summer about the office's priorities, community engagement, incarceration, racial disparities and how to define success. It also includes results of an online survey taken by 84 Hillsborough prosecutors. The study is funded through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Among the findings for Hillsborough:

* Racial minorities are over-represented in the criminal justice system, but Hillsborough prosecutors don't think they contribute to the disparities. Some say the issue stems more from the concentration of poverty in some communities, which leads to a heavier law enforcement presence. Some prosecutors are uncomfortable even talking about the issue.

"I know there is a disparity and it sucks because I sit in court and I see it," one prosecutor said.

"What are we supposed to do?" said another prosecutor. "If I can prove the case and it is a lawful arrest, am I supposed to let them go because it's fairer? It's not my place to decide who to prosecute and who not to prosecute."

* The office does not have a formal process for evaluating prosecutors. Some attorneys said promotions occur based on internal politics and longevity.

"How people are promoted and evaluated is political," one prosecutor said. "In the administration, once they form an opinion about you they don't change. We are supposed to give people due process in court and we don't get that in the office."

* Some prosecutors believe community engagement could help build trust among people who don't hold positive views of the State Attorney's Office, but most are skeptical.

"Our job is always going to be to enforce the law," said one prosecutor. "So there will inevitably be parts of the community where we aren't well-received. The public defender's office can go and be perceived as helping, and we go to the same place and are perceived as putting people down."

* The prosecutors believe the office seeks jail and prison time appropriately, but certain laws carry punishments that are too harsh or restrictive. They also say some offenses are a waste of time.

"The Legislature is a mess," one prosecutor said. "Sometimes they tie our hands with mandatory minimums and sometimes it would help to have options."

"Driving on a suspended (license) is just a stupid crime," said another. "If a person comes in with a valid license, drop the case. There's no point."

* The survey data indicates that most Hillsborough prosecutors consider lowering crime rates and recidivism and maintaining positive relationships with law enforcement as among the most important objectives of their jobs. They were divided on whether aggressive prosecution could better control crime. Most disagreed that the court system is too lenient on defendants.

A second installment, which will focus on racial disparities, is expected next summer. The final portion, due a year from now, will look at performance metrics.

A link to the full report is available online at www.caj.fiu.edu.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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