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Legislation would require reporting on race disparities in criminal sentencing

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Sponsors of legislation requiring the state to produce a report each year on criminal sentencing disparities based on race said Monday that they don’t mean an attack on judges but need to know what the data show.

“I’ve heard there’s been some consternation from some judges,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat from Jacksonville.

“The bill is not about judges. It’s justice, and it’s about data. Nobody should fear data,” she said.

“The data already exists. The bill simply asks (the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) to to compile it, so that it can be given to judges, state attorney’s offices, the Senate president, the speaker (of the House), the chief judge, the Supreme Court, as well as to the public,” Gibson said.

“It is time we looked at whether Florida is doing a good job … or are there opportunities for improvement. If the data shows us that there is disproportionate treatement between African Americans, minorities, and poor persons, and nomninority people, then we ought to get to look at that, and look at the system and see where we are falling down.”

SB 382, and a House companion by Miami Democrat Kionne McGhee, would require officials to post a report each March 1 detailing sentencing data for every judge handling criminal and juvenile cases. The reports would break down sentencing decisions by race, sex, age, income, and criminal history.

Evidence of discrimination against any group would be ground for disqualification of a judge.

During a news conference outside the Senate chamber Monday, the lawmakers were flanked by House members and representatives of the NAACP, the Florida Public Defender Association, and the Advancement Project, a civil rights group.

African Americans comprise 16 percent of Florida’s population but 48 percent of the state’s inmates, Gibson said. Hispanics are 13 percent of the state population but 16 percent of its inmates.

“Only when we gather the data can we identify the truth. And once we’ve had a chance establish the truth, it’s our belief that good Floridians, or people of good conscience, are going to make the right decisions about how we address that,” said Dale Landry of the NAACP.

“We really believe that to some judges, this might even open their eyes to some of the practices they are doing,” he said.

McGhee said he would meet with Judiciary chairman Chris Sprowls Tuesday to discuss the legislation.

McGhee, a former prosecutor, said judges can and do depart from sentencing recommendations attached to plea bargains.

The “elephant in the room,” he said, is race. And the question is whether Florida will abide by the principles of the country’s founding documents.

“If there is a judge out there who’s watching this press conference who believes that his or her beliefs are superior to the founding fathers who crafted such great documents for this great nation, then we ask that they review who they are as a person. Because it contradicts everything we stand for,” McGhee said.

“The real answer is race, and bias. … We all come to this game with some sort of bias. And we all must check ourselves when we go through those doors of justice. Everybody here understands — these House members who have been in this process for a while, who have been fighting for the good of the people. They understand. And that’s why we’re here.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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