SB 1392 PASSED REFORMING RACIAL INJUSTICES IN THE COURTS
Courtesy: Herald-Tribune 3/9/18
By Josh Salman
Legislation follows Herald-Tribune investigation revealing severe disparity in sentencing.
The Florida Legislature approved SB 1392 late Friday to bolster transparency in the criminal justice system, a reform experts hope will address rampant racial disparities in sentencing exposed in reporting by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
The effort to improve data collection in the criminal justice system passed as part of a swap between the Florida House and Senate of priority criminal justice reforms. House leaders agreed to a plan pushed by Senate President Joe Negron aimed at increasing the use of civil citations and pre-arrest diversion programs for juveniles who commit minor crimes. Senate leaders agreed to the data-collection proposal, which had cleared the House last month.
“It’s important at all times to be evaluating our criminal justice system to make sure that there aren’t biases and prejudices and other things that we don’t want to happen in our criminal justice system,” Negron said Friday. “And the best way to determine that is to get actual information and data and research to make sure that we’re treating everyone fairly regardless of their racial background, their education, income.”
The legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for approval. Under the proposal, various records stored by court clerks, state attorneys, public defenders, jail operators and law enforcement will be centralized, and the results will be published through a new database updated weekly. The data enhancements come on the heels of more than years of reporting by the Herald-Tribune on racial disparities in criminal sentencing.
Those investigations — “Bias on the bench” and “One War. Two Races” — found that when a black and white defendant commit the same crime under similar circumstances, Florida courts sentence the black offender to far longer in lockup on average. The disparities are exacerbated in the war on drugs.
To read the Herald-Tribune’s “Bias on the Bench” series, go to heraldtribune.com/bias. To read “One War. Two Races,” go to heraldtribune.com/drugs
The newspaper’s reporting also showed the state’s current criminal justice data collection is flawed, fractured and rife with errors. “Here lies the importance of the fourth estate,” Larry Eger, public defender for Sarasota’s 12th Circuit, said previously. “It’s fallen on deaf ears for so long … and now you see the impact.”
Under the new requirement, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will begin publishing data from every step — arrest and bail proceedings to sentencing — on its website and update those results weekly. It would also include basic information on offenders, like age and race. The idea is to allow the public to track a defendant’s experience in the system start to finish and compare it with others. The website would launch in 2019. “We’ll get some really good information to be able to tell whether we have issues and be able to address those issues,” Negron said.
The measure also calls for the state to digitize the criminal punishment code’s sentencing scoresheets. The form is used by the courts to ensure consistency in sentencing, with a point-scoring system that calculates recommended sentences based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record and a host of other factors. As a pilot, Florida’s 6th Circuit Court of Pinellas and Pasco counties will work with a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization to help compile and report the data.
Lawmakers and justice system experts have praised the new legislation as a way to improve the public’s access to the criminal justice system — ultimately bolstering consistency and fairness. They say the first step toward reforming the system is identifying failures through accurate data.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’Lakes, called the bipartisan measure “a game-changer.” A similar data bill inspired by the Herald-Tribune failed to advance through either the House or Senate in 2017. “This legislation would make Florida a model for effective, data-driven criminal justice and create the gold standard for the rest of the country,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, a former prosecutor who steered the data effort through the House. “There are changes needed to create a more fair, accountable and transparent system.”