Race Plays Prominent Role in Florida Criminal Courts

An exhaustive report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune has concluded that black defendants in Florida receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts for the same crimes.

According to the newspaper’s analysis, in almost half of Florida’s counties, blacks convicted of felony drug possession are sentenced to more than double the prison time as whites charged with the same crimes, and with the same criminal histories.

In recent years, reports of police brutality and excessive use of force against African-Americans have received international coverage, leading to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for reform in the nation’s criminal justice systems.

South Florida criminal defense attorney Brian S. Leifert commented, “This report is just the latest piece of evidence to highlight the vastly different treatment people of color often receive when they have been accused of criminal behavior.”

To illustrate the disparity, the newspaper reviewed the point system Florida uses for sentencing and compared the outcomes of cases involving black and white defendants. Cases with identical scores should lead to identical sentences, but reporters found that blacks received harsher sentences than whites for first, second, and third-degree felonies.

The paper also highlighted specific cases, such of those of Timothy Blount, a 21-year old white man, and Zachary Jamison, a 22-year old black man. Both pled guilty [of] to selling cocaine in Nassau County and received identical scores.

The same judge ruled on both of their cases, sentencing Blount to three years of probation and drug rehabilitation. In contrast, Jamison was not offered probation, and was sentenced to thirteen months in Florida state prison.

To account for the apparent bias, authors Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz, and Elizabeth Johnson looked at a number of factors, including the ethnic makeup of the state’s judiciary. They found that only seven percent of Florida’s sitting county and circuit court judges are black. They also found that the sentencing disparity is far greater among white judges.

The reporters concluded that Florida’s system for handing down sentences in criminal cases is “broken,” and recommended further checks and balances to ensure equal sentences for equal offenses.

When asked for comment, some judges, such as retired senior judge Lee Haworth, deferred to prosecutors.

“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,” Haworth said.

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