Florida should correct racial disparities in drug sentences: A Tampa Bay Times Editorial

Posted December 23, 2017 12:06 p.m. EST

Racial disparities pervade Florida's justice system, and the war on drugs is no exception. A Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigation found black defendants account for a disproportionate share of drug convictions and are given longer jail sentences than whites in similar circumstances. The disparity exists in drug treatment too, with blacks afforded far less access to rehabilitation programs. As the state devotes more resources to helping rather than jailing addicts, it should recognize this inequality and not leave African-Americans behind.

The Herald-Tribune compiled information from multiple state databases and identified trends in drug cases. Most significantly, blacks make up 17 percent of Florida's population but account for 46 percent of felony drug convictions. Laws enacted during the crack cocaine epidemic that established drug-free zones around schools, churches and public housing continue to be in force -- and continue to perpetuate racial imbalances. Dealing drugs in those zones, which commonly blanket minority neighborhoods, often brings enhanced prison sentences. The Herald-Tribune found that black defendants are nearly three times more likely to face a drug-free zone sentence enhancement and account for two-thirds of those convictions statewide. The newspaper's series, "One War. Two Races," found these disparities exist even between defendants with similar criminal histories caught committing the same crimes. The only difference was race.

Take the comparison of two men caught selling drugs in north Tampa. A white man sold oxycodone pain pills to a confidential informant from his apartment near USF. He had a long history of addiction and had committed other crimes to feed his habit. Even though the drug sale took place near a church, prosecutors did not seek a longer sentence. The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. In the other case, a black man sold $100 of crack cocaine to an undercover deputy. Deputies alleged the sale took place near a church, but that was inaccurate. Still, prosecutors sought the enhancement and the black defendant was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Such imbalances show up in statistics from every judicial circuit in Florida, making clear that racial bias -- both in the laws and in the way the laws are applied -- is unjustly affecting African-Americans.

Drug defendants in Florida don't necessarily head straight to prison. Drug courts, which allow low-level users to get treatment while meeting rigorous conditions, are in greater use. The opioid crisis also has created more state-subsidized inpatient rehab beds. But those options are less accessible to black defendants. While blacks made up 40 percent of felony drug convictions, less than a quarter were accepted in drug court. And though Florida has added 3,000 residential rehab beds since 2004, black defendants are getting fewer of them. That's due in part to the startling rise in opioids, which are used overwhelmingly by whites and killed nearly 6,000 people in Florida last year . But unconscious bias is also surely playing a role in the court system, where a white pain pill addict may be viewed as someone who has simply lost his or her way while a black crack user may seem beyond saving.

To correct this fundamental unfairness, police, prosecutors and judges should acknowledge the Herald-Tribune's findings and take them to heart. To his credit, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren is already taking steps to correct such sentencing disparities, including expanding the use of diversion programs. In the coming legislative session, lawmakers also will consider bills relaxing minimum mandatory drug sentences, which have kept too many low-level drug offenders locked up for too long.

There is no justification for allowing Florida's courts to systematically treat one racial group differently from another. As the state works to evolve past the punitive -- and ineffective -- approach of focusing on locking up addicts, restoring fairness and banishing discrimination should be at the heart of those efforts.

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