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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Unequal justice in Florida

Black defendants who face a judge in Florida also confront an unjust reality: They are likely to be given far harsher prison sentences than white defendants who commit the same crime.
Published Dec. 16, 2016

Black defendants who face a judge in Florida also confront an unjust reality: They are likely to be given far harsher prison sentences than white defendants who commit the same crime. An investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune found disturbing racial disparities in sentences throughout Florida, despite a state law meant to ensure equity and consistency. Judges have a duty to uphold and apply the law without bias, but the newspaper's findings show that many are instead perpetuating inequality in the courtroom.

Herald-Tribune reporters spent a year combing through state databases that track millions of criminal cases from the filing of charges to sentencing. They also built their own database to analyze individual judges' patterns in sentencing based on race and other factors. The excellent series, "Bias on the Bench," can be found at http://projects.heraldtribune.com/bias/. Its broad finding — that blacks and whites who are charged with identical crimes receive vastly different sentences — accounts for factors such as past crimes, whether a weapon was used or anyone was injured. That's the same way Florida law calculates sentencing guidelines, in which defendants are scored on a points system to come up with a minimum legal sentence. But even when defendants score the same points, judges give black defendants a longer prison stay in 60 percent of felony cases, the newspaper found. In some instances, a black defendant went to prison for a crime for which a white defendant was given probation.

Consider Chase Legleitner of Martin County, who was charged with two counts of armed robbery for participating in the ambush and mugging of three men involved in a 2008 drug deal. Legleitner, who is white, was sentenced to two years in county jail. Lamar Lloyd of Martin County, who is black, was charged with two counts of armed robbery for holding up a Pizza Hut and gas station with an associate and stealing a total of $550 in 2009. He scored the same points as Legleitner. They were two years apart in age and even appeared before the same judge, but Lloyd was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Timothy Blount was charged with selling cocaine in Nassau County, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to drug rehab and three years probation. He's white. Zachary Jamison, a black man, was sent to prison for 13 months by the same judge for the same crime. In Martin County, Janine Sheehan and Rethema Delancy were both charged with felony drug crimes. Both tallied 28.4 points on their sentencing scoresheets. Sheehan, a white woman, got six months in county jail. Delancy, who is black, got 18 months in prison.

Those are individual illustrations of the broader pattern that plays out across Florida. In Pinellas County, black defendants charged with battery were sentenced to 67 percent more jail or prison time than whites, the investigation found. For felony drug possession, blacks received 93 percent more time. In Hillsborough County, a burglary conviction netted black defendants 43 percent more time than whites. Across all second-degree felonies, black defendants in Hillsborough were given 90 percent more time than whites. These figures are not anomalies, and they do not portray a justice system that is fair and impartial.

When confronted about the disparities, some of the judges were shocked, unaware of the variations in their own sentences. And that's part of the problem: The state has no system to monitor for racial disparities. Beyond that is the reality of implicit bias. People don't have to be consciously, overtly racist to allow negative perceptions about certain groups to cloud their judgment. Judges are expected to set aside such prejudices, but the state provides them scant training on the subject.

Greater diversity on the bench would surely help too. The Herald-Tribune reported that black judges hand out more balanced sentences but make up fewer than 7 percent of Florida's judges. White judges, the newspaper found, sentence black defendants to 20 percent more time on average for third-degree felonies. Gov. Rick Scott has appointed fewer black judges than his two immediate predecessors, and his appointees sentence black defendants to 16 percent more jail time than whites, according to the investigation. This is a trend that is moving in the wrong direction. Florida should have a judiciary that more closely reflects the population.

Some judges rightly point out that the great majority of criminal cases are resolved in plea deals agreed to by prosecutors and the defense. Judges often just sign off on the sentence, though they have discretion to call for more or less incarceration. Plea bargains are a necessary tool in criminal court — if every case went to trial, the system would grind to a halt. That makes it incumbent upon law enforcement authorities at every level — arresting officers, prosecutors and judges — to keep fairness and equal application of the law at the forefront of their work.

Florida's points system that evaluates criminal defendants to provide consistent sentencing guidelines is fair only on paper. In practice, a white defendant is likely to spend far less time incarcerated than a black person who commits the same offense. That blatant discrepancy should demand the attention and concern of every Florida judge who cares about justice.

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