An unequal criminal justice system hurts minorities: There may be one way to fix the inequities

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/7/19-Sen. Randolph Bracy. D-Orlando, monitors Senate debate.COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Legal experts, political groupies and citizens following the news were surprised and even outraged last week when a federal judge sentenced former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to less than four years in prison for committing multiple felonies.

Critics say the sentence exposed the vast disparities in how people of privilege fare in the criminal justice system compared to people of color in low-income communities.

“For context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room,” tweeted New York attorney Scott Hechinger in a comment that went viral.

In Florida, the Manafort sentence has resonated, with state lawmakers introducing a spate of proposals this year to address inequities in the state’s criminal justice system.

Of concern, though, is whether any of the legislation would impact the racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system.

While blacks make up just 16 percent of the state’s population, they represent 41 percent of the state’s prison makeup, according to the most recent annual report published by the Florida Department of Corrections (other groups say it’s as high as 47 percent, using earlier DOC data).

And a 2016 analysis from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune discovered that black defendants in Florida spend longer time behind bars than white defendants for the same types of crimes. The paper’s analysis revealed that judges in 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 were the same.

State Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orange County, says those disparities need to be addressed before any proposals are passed in the Legislature.

Bracy has been speaking with Senate President Bill Galvano about including an analysis about racial disparities in every criminal justice-related bill that comes before state senators. It would be similar to “fiscal impact” statements now included in various legislation, to review the cost of proposals that could become law.

“A number of states have passed legislation to make sure that racial impact studies are done,” Bracy said last week. ”And so I think we need to do the right thing, especially when we have probably one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.”

Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Galvano, told the Florida Phoenix that the Senate president has spoken to Bracy about using a research arm of the Legislature to see what would be required to conduct a racial disparity analysis that could be included in legislation.

“The president wanted to understand what type of training for existing staff, additional personnel, or other legislative resources might be needed if the Senate were to implement such a requirement for an independent analysis. The president told Senator Bracy that he would fully support and approve such a study,” Betta wrote in an email statement.

Four states have implemented racial impact statement requirements over the past decade, while an additional seven states are looking at implementing similar laws this year.

Iowa became the first state government to adopt minority impact statements in the wake of a 2007 report from The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group which examines disparities in the criminal justice system.

That report showed that blacks accounted for 24 percent of the state’s prison population, though only two percent of Iowa’s population is black – the worst such disparity in the country.

In both Iowa and Oregon, the request for a racial impact statement must come from at least one Republican and one Democrat in the Legislature.

In Connecticut, a relatively new law requires that a racial and ethnic impact statement be prepared at the request of any legislator. Previous law allowed for an impact statement only if requested by a number of lawmakers.

And in New Jersey, the state is required to prepare racial-impact statements for policy changes that affect pretrial detention, sentencing and parole.

Hopes are high that lawmakers will approve several significant criminal justice reform proposals this year, buttressed by support from both progressive and conservative groups. But that alliance is now showing signs of a fissure when it comes to the touted Florida First Step Act, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg.

The legislation would remove mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug traffickers and offer up to 60 days off (called “gain-time”) if they learn a trade or get an education.

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Action Fund, says the bill’s passage could actually have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the racial disparities for black and brown people in the prison population.

The bill calls for reducing or suspending prison sentences for those engaged in drug trafficking, the majority of whom are white, McCoy says.

“So the safety valve will help the white community more than the black community,” McCoy recently told lawmakers. “On top of that, the safety valve has a carve-out for dangerous crimes like robbery. Robbery is disproportionately prosecuted against black people. Which means those people will not be able to take advantage of the safety valve.”

Democratic legislators told the Phoenix last week they strongly support the concept of having racial impact statements attached to criminal justice bills.

“I support it one hundred percent. It makes complete sense,” said state Rep. Ramon Alexander from Tallahassee. “We need to look at things holistically in regards to what is in the best interests of how we come up with prevention and intervention style models to address these issues.”

“There is a huge disparity in our sentencing,” says state Rep. Dianne Hart from Tampa, who says she has visited 10 correctional institutions in the state since being elected to the Legislature.

“I think what Senator Bracy is doing is a very good thing, because we do have a disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated out of kilter with their representation in the general population,” adds state Rep. Geraldine Thompson from Orlando.

While more states than ever are debating implementing racial impact statements, not every Legislature that has discussed the issue has approved them.

Three times in the past seven years the Arkansas Legislature debated implementing racial impact statements, and three times lawmakers rejected the idea.

In some quarters, people just don’t necessarily believe the criminal justice system is racially biased.

And advocates for racial impact studies caution that implementing such programs can’t by themselves address the disparities in the criminal justice system — though they’re an important tool in addressing the problem.

“We’re at a crucial point where we’re starting to hear a lot about criminal justice bills. We’re hearing a lot of talk about reform, and we want to do it right,” says Senator Bracy.

“We don’t want to just hope that we’re doing what we think is right, so we need analysis.”

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