SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) – An analysis of Florida’s criminal justice system shows that black defendants spend longer time behind bars than white defendants for the same types of crimes.
The analysis by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Sunday shows that judges in nearly half the counties in Florida sentence blacks convicted of felony drug possession to more than double the time of whites. That’s even when their backgrounds are the same.
“It’s unconscionable,” said Wengay Newton Sr., a former St. Petersburg city commissioner, 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 reviewed tens of millions of records in two state databases. The first is compiled by the state’s court clerks and its tracks criminal cases through every stage of the justice system. The second is maintained by the Florida Department of Corrections and it notes points scored by felons at sentencing.
Points are used to calculate sentences based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record and a host of other factors.
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.
The Herald-Tribune concluded that when a white and black defendant score the same points for the same offense, judges give the black defendant a longer prison stay in 60 percent of felony cases.
A lack of diversity on the bench affects sentencing since white judges in Florida sentence black defendants to 20 percent more time on average for third-degree felonies than black judges, according to the newspaper.
Judges contacted by the Herald-Tribune denied discriminating by race. Some shifted the blame to police officers and prosecutors.
“The public thinks judges get to do whatever they want, and that’s just not accurate,” said Lee Haworth, a retired senior judge in Sarasota and former chief judge of Florida’s 12th Circuit. “Judges are just blessing what the prosecutor and defendant agreed to. These sentences were handed to the judges on a silver platter. There’s only a tiny percentage where I think the judges could be responsible for the disparities with things like age, gender or race.”