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Why is evidence of racial disparity in sentencing not necessarily evidence of racial discrimination

Photos and video by Dan Wagner Published on Dec 12, 2016 Justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida. Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. 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. 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. Racial disparities in sentencing for felony drug possession, battery and robbery for three Florida counties. Petersburg city commissioner and Democrat, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November.

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.

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. When defendants score the same points in the formula used to set criminal punishments — indicating they should receive equal sentences — blacks spend far longer behind bars.

Florida’s broken sentencing system

There is no consistency between judges in Tallahassee and those in Sarasota. Police target poor black neighborhoods, funneling more minorities into the system.

Once in court, judges are tougher on black drug offenders every step of the way. Nearly half the counties in Florida sentence blacks convicted of felony drug possession to more than double the time of whites, even when their backgrounds are the same. But fewer than 7 percent of sitting judges are black and less than half of them preside over serious felonies. White judges in Florida sentence black defendants to 20 percent more time on average for third-degree felonies.

Blacks who wear the robe give more balanced punishments. The courts keep a wealth of data on criminal defendants. So does the prison system. But no one uses the data to review racial disparities in sentencing. Without checks to ensure equality, bias reigns. Judges say they are not racist.

But centuries of racial tension in America, a lack of cultural understanding and negative stereotypes cloud their judgment. They said they weigh each case on the merits, and punishments perceived as biased can be taken up with the appeals court. Some shifted blame to law enforcement.

Designed for fairness, it fails to account for prejudice

Others pointed to prosecutors. These sentences were handed to the judges on a silver platter. But a Herald-Tribune investigation found the system still leaves judges with the discretion to show mercy. They just show it more often to the people who look like them.

Across Florida, 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. For the most serious first-degree crimes, judges sentence blacks to 68 percent more time than whites with identical points.

For burglary, it's 45 percent more. The Cape Coral man, who carried a gun, was charged with armed robbery with a deadly weapon. Ignoring the guidelines, prosecutors and defense counsel agreed to a plea deal that called for no jail time. Simpson, who took over the case from Judge Edward Volz Jr.

Simpson sentenced the white teenager to probation without any incarceration. Judge Volz was not so lenient with Jaquavias Sturgis. Allen Peters Jaquavius Sturgis Just before 9 a.

They were armed with guns. Prosecutors charged Sturgis with one count of armed robbery with a deadly weapon. Judge Volz gave the black teen four years in prison, also agreeing to a plea bargain between prosecutors and defense counsel. Both Peters and Sturgis have three confidential crimes on their juvenile records, which were not taken into consideration. Both were convicted of armed robbery in the same county.

  1. The county is a swath of inland communities tucked just below the Georgia border, where small churches and modest ranch homes are about the only things separating miles of pines east of the Okefenokee Swamp. Run by researchers from Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Florida, the test reveals that men are more biased than women.
  2. The same is true for the Judicial Qualifications Commission, or JQC, the government agency tasked with regulating Florida judges for ethical misconduct, including issues of discrimination. Judge Volz gave the black teen four years in prison, also agreeing to a plea bargain between prosecutors and defense counsel.
  3. Simpson sentenced the white teenager to probation without any incarceration.
  4. That compares with just 6 percent of the more than 200 judges appointed by Scott.

Both signed plea deals to avoid trial and both were 17 at the time of their offenses. Both scored the same points. Nothing in public documents provides an explanation for why they were treated differently. Peters' file has been destroyed, according to the State Attorney's Office. Since 2004, Lee County judges sentenced black defendants convicted of robbery to an additional 16 months on average compared with whites who scored the same points.

Experts say similar outcomes play out in courtrooms across Florida. One is a white kid from the suburbs. The judge sees that the kid kind of looks like his son and talks like his son, and the judge thinks: When he speaks, his tone is a little different, and the judge thinks: He pleaded guilty and scored 28 points.

Judge Robert Foster showed mercy. He sentenced the 21-year-old white man to drug rehab and three years of probation. The same judge was harder on Zachary Jamison.

Timothy Blount Zachary Jamison Charged in 2009 with selling cocaine in Nassau County, the 22-year-old black man also pleaded guilty, scored 28 points and went before Foster. But probation was not in the cards. Foster sent Jamison to state prison for 13 months. Judges presiding over courtrooms in the conservative county north of Jacksonville give blacks an additional 332 days in lockup for felony drug charges.

That is more than double the time given to whites with identical records. But members of the black community have why is evidence of racial disparity in sentencing not necessarily evidence of racial discrimination calling on him to step down over what they perceive as a bias against minorities, particularly with drug cases.

They started an online petition in 2014 that drew more than 630 signatures. He gives blacks charged with the same crime and who scored the same points an average of 562 days — nearly a year longer. Foster adamantly denied discriminating against black defendants.

While not addressing the racial disparity, he said his rulings reflect the desires of his community in Nassau to take a hard line on drugs in all cases.

I reflect the values of my community. An analysis of two state databases shows Foster sentences black defendants convicted of felony drug possession more harshly than white defendants convicted of the same crime. The county is a swath of inland communities tucked just below the Georgia border, where small churches and modest ranch homes are about the only things separating miles of pines east of the Okefenokee Swamp. But across the river, that rural landscape shifts to Amelia Island, a popular vacation destination with black neighborhoods on its northern and southern tips.

A woman at her home in Fernandina Beach. A plantation owner later deeded the southern end of the 13-mile stretch of beach to his workers, forming a pocket of poor but free blacks.

They walled off their gated subdivisions, manicured golf clubs and Atlantic resorts on Amelia Island from American Beach, where some of the duplexes and cottages sit abandoned and blighted — awaiting reinvestment. Nassau county map Blacks at the other end of the island near downtown Fernandina Beach face a different kind of racial pressure.

They say police use informants to comb their community for drugs, sending young residents to court over and over and contributing to a sense of hopelessness.

Thomas Coleman, a pastor in Nassau County, referencing his black skin. In search of consistency, Florida adopted sentencing guidelines in 1983. State lawmakers continued to tweak sentencing rules over the ensuing years, adding the Criminal Punishment Code in 1998 in hopes of further leveling the playing field. Prosecutors now assign points to defendants based on the severity of their crime, whether they have a prior record and the circumstances surrounding their arrest.

Points are added for victim injuries or flashing a gun. Scores go up for violating probation or skipping court. Prosecutors then tally the numbers to determine the minimum sentence required by law.

Judges may depart from the minimum if the defendant is cooperative or needs special treatment, but the law says any departures must be made in writing.

In Citrus County, Leroy Waters scored 4. Waters obtained a public defender and signed a plea agreement that included jail time.

When Paul Penninger was busted for the same charge, he also went before Judge Howard. He used a court-appointed lawyer, pleaded no contest and scored a matching 4.

The agreement called for no jail time, so the judge took it easy on the 48-year-old white man, sentencing him to a year on probation. The judge also withheld adjudication, which means Penninger is not considered a convicted felon. Penninger later violated the terms and could have been sentenced to as long as five years in prison. But once again, there was no call for lockup and Howard let the white man go free.