Racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system are shameful

Prison gate at a state prison. Source: Florida Department of Corrections

The U.S. Census Bureau states that 17 percent of Florida citizens are Black, while the Florida Department of Corrections reports that 47 percent of men and women in state prison are Black.

In all 50 states, less than 14 percent of the population is Black but the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that 33 percent of the prison population nationwide is Black.

The numbers don’t lie: Racism and discrimination are prevalent in Florida’s criminal justice system and the disparities in Florida are greater than those across the nation.

The state needs reform, not just for Black people but for many others caught in the ineffective, dangerous, and increasingly expensive system. From the Department of Corrections to Families Against Mandatory Minimums to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), we all agree, Florida needs real reform.

And, although the Legislature passed one reform this spring that would address mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking offenses, clearly there is much work to be done to end racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and it appears our state lawmakers are not in a hurry to make the necessary changes.

The Senate is willing, but House leadership has resisted any real reform. This past session, State Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who heads the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, refused to allow even a debate on any substantial reforms in committee.

With former prosecutor Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, slated to be the next Florida House Speaker, Florida can expect continued resistance to correcting systemic injustices. This, all in the face of 82 percent of Florida voters agreeing that the criminal justice system is in need of reform.

In failing to act, lawmakers are perpetuating a racially discriminatory system that disrupts too many families and costs many Black Floridians the prime, productive years of their lives, while costing taxpayers more and more money every year to run the state’s prisons — $2.7 billion this year alone.

“Living in Florida while Black” is hazardous, as it always has been. Today, in our era of mass incarceration, the risks posed by systems we still haven’t freed from their discriminatory roots begin very early in life, with Black children much more likely to see their lives swept into “the school to prison pipeline.”

We have seen this play out in the national news, when the body cam footage of the arrest of Kaia Rolle was released. Kaia is just 6 years old and was arrested by an Orange County Sheriff’s Sergeant for being “disruptive” in school.

A 2019 report by the ACLU of Florida found that Black children are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers. Kicking kids out of school doesn’t teach them how to behave; it deepens the disconnect between them and school, leading only to more trouble.

Just one suspension or expulsion multiplies the likelihood of future arrest, and just one arrest makes it statistically less likely a student will graduate from high school. More of Florida’s Black kids pushed out of school contributes to our Black teens being four times as likely to be arrested as their peers.

Often, these kids aren’t committing what most would consider crimes. Police made more than 1,400 youth arrests last year, primarily in schools, for “disorderly conduct,” a charge so prone to bias that our Black kids are seven times as likely to face it.

Another 1,300 arrests were made for “obstruction of justice,” as in the case of 6th grader Jabari Talbot who was arrested after his substitute teacher told him to return to Africa if he didn’t want to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

Black kids are not more likely to misbehave. Research shows that people see Black kids as older and more disruptive than they are, with Black boys perceived as more threatening and Black girls as aggressive. When police are the school disciplinarian, that means more Black kids are going to get criminal records.

With the expansion of school police following the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the number of arrests in schools have increased by 9 percent, with the number of citations written by school police jumping by 33 percent.

This disproportionately early introduction to the justice system burdens Black people with a criminal record — and reputation — that isn’t easily shaken. Florida generally doesn’t allow kids to expunge those juvenile records until they are 21. So our prison population demographics echo the demographics of those pushed out of school and scooped into the juvenile justice system.

Two thirds of those in Florida’s prisons did not finish high school and, in a state where fewer than 20 percent of our people are Black, nearly half of our prisoners are Black.

This isn’t an issue of a few racist people. The disparities are widespread — systemic — and plague every aspect of the criminal justice system. A 2018 study by the ACLU and the University of Miami found that there are higher rates of arrest, pretrial detention, conviction, and incarceration across the board for defendants arrested in Black neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County.

There is no evidence that Black people account for nearly half of Florida’s illicit drug industry or users, yet they made up 46 percent of the state’s felony convictions since 2004, as a 2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation established.

In fact, the newspaper found that even when Black and white people were convicted of similar drug crimes, Black people received a sentence that was, on average, two-thirds longer.

Black Floridians aren’t overly incarcerated because they’re committing more violent felonies — they are more likely than white Floridians to be sentenced to prison for nonviolent felonies, even when they don’t have past convictions, as the nonprofit criminal justice reform group, Measures for Justice, has found.

And it isn’t that their cases were just not comparable — even when they commit a crime with a white friend, Black people serve longer sentences than their white friends, as a 2019 Florida State University study found.

Put simply, it’s not that Black people are more likely to jaywalk than their white neighbors — it’s that they are three times as likely to be cited by police for doing so, as a 2017 Pro Publica and The Florida Times Union study in Jacksonville found.

Meanwhile, the prison budget grows, primarily on the backs of the Black community, and year after year some Florida lawmakers obstinately refuse to face reality and reform the system. We all know there are people in prison who do not belong there, who will come back to our communities more vulnerable than before. We should not have revolving doors to our prisons.

We should be addressing unjust actions, not perpetuating them. While other states, including other Southern and conservative states, recognize this and cut their prison populations and budgets without endangering public safety, Florida continues to embrace its past — a past constructed on a foundation of racism and anti-Blackness.

Floridians need to tell their state representatives and senators this is not acceptable. We are tired of wasting money to keep prisons full. It is past time to put an end to the state’s shamefully racist infrastructure and ensure Black people have a true chance to succeed and live with dignity.

Natishia Y. June is deputy field director for the ACLU of Florida.