Recent reporting suggests Florida’s trial judges are more likely to give harsh sentences to people of color. Now two Florida lawmakers want the state to begin tracking the sentences handed down as a way to stamp out disparities.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent much of last year developing a report on disparities in the sentences handed down by Florida’s courts. In some counties, people of color faced significantly more time in jail or on probation. Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) says it’s a long-standing problem in the state.
“Many legislatures I think have—in Florida in particular—have tried to grapple with disparity in sentencing particularly as it relates African Americans and people of color,” Gibson says, “which is why they came up with the point scoring system.”
That system was built to provide an objective measure of a person’s criminal record. The problem is, even with the same points defendants of color often receive harsher treatment.
“Those defendants who are African American tend to receive more time in prison and/or more time on probation, which is troubling for all of us,” Rep. Kionne McGhee (D-Miami) says.
McGhee has teamed up with Gibson to address the problem.
“What this bill seeks to do is say to the Legislature, put everything online,” McGhee says. “Put it into one place where the public can see it.”
The report Gibson and McGhee are proposing would come out annually and it would include every criminal sentence handed down, the presiding judge and demographic information about the defendant.
“I have a voting record,” Gibson says, “and most every other—no, every other elected official—has a record that people can look at.”
“We should look at what our judges are doing,” she says. “Are they truly unbiased? And if they’re not, we need to do something about it.”
Their report would also serve as grounds for dismissing a judge from a case if discriminatory sentencing can be proven, but other than that, the proposal is simply data collection. Gibson is quick to point out the goal is not to be punish the judiciary.
“Sometimes you just need to look at yourself to see if you do have a bias,” Gibson says. “It may be hidden to you if you don’t have that data collection in front of you.”
Florida State University Law Professor and former president of the American Bar Association Sandy D’Alemberte isn’t ready to take a position on the legislation, but he says the idea of annual reporting is probably a good one.
“Honestly to call it a justice system is pretty hard in the face of what the Herald-Tribune turned up,” he says, “and so the idea of OPPAGA looking at sentencing does not offend me at all.”
OPPAGA is the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability—it’s a research group that works on behalf of the state Legislature.
In the House, Gibson and McGhee’s measure will start off in the Criminal Justice subcommittee but it has yet to be placed on the agenda. In the Senate, the proposal hasn’t gotten committee assignments yet.