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Race & Justice News: Florida Judges Not Blameless for Biased Pleas

January 03, 2019
Judges in Florida are not blameless for biased plea deals, Denver's curfew law enforcement targets Latino youth, and more in Race & Justice News.

Race and Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Denver’s Curfew Law Enforcement Targets Latino Youth

Though cities such as Austin and San Antonio have eliminated or decriminalized curfew violations – arresting youth who remain out of their homes at late hours – Denver’s curfew law, which began in 1994, is still on the books. A recent review by the Denver Post found that Latino youth, who comprise 41% of the city’s teen population, accounted for 67% of curfew arrests. The police department explains that they target areas of the city with “a lot of juvenile activity” and deploy extra curfew runs during Cinco de Mayo. Curfew citations compel youth to undergo a months-long program and can result in fines, a permanent record, and consequences for immigration proceedings.

“The numbers here suggest that if you happen to be a Mexican kid living in Denver, then that’s a crime,” said Councilman Paul López, who represents the area most targeted by disparate enforcement. The Denver Post highlighted stories such as that of a Latina girl ticketed for stopping at a convenience store on the way home from her late shift at a restaurant. Although she was saving money for college, she quit the job to avoid another police encounter. The problem has existed for years, but Denver’s police department made data errors (uncovered by local media) that hid the existence of the disparities.

Nashville Police Disproportionately Stop Drivers of Color

The Nashville police department has used traffic stops as a strategy to increase visibility and prevent crime in the city, but this tactic has disproportionately affected people of color and has failed to improve public safety, according to a new report from the Policing Project of the NYU School of Law in collaboration with the Stanford Computational Policy Lab (SCPL). The report notes that although the total number of stops and their racial disparity have declined in recent years, black drivers were stopped at a 44% higher rate than white drivers in 2017. The researchers also found the stops did not appear to have a significant impact on short- or long-term crime trends.

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The police department claims these disparities are connected to the location where stops occur, explaining that Nashville’s “high-crime” neighborhoods tend to have larger populations of color. SCPL’s analysis finds that even after controlling for crime, unexplained racial disparity persists. In response to the report, Nashville police may be open to some changes. The Tennessean reports that Police Chief Steve Anderson did not challenge the findings and said that the department would “refocus and rededicate [themselves]…to engaging neighborhood residents in public safety initiatives that do not make vehicle stops a priority.”

Maricopa County Sheriff Works to Overcome Bias After Arpaio

Two years into his new job as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Paul Penzone is slowly making progress in a court-ordered overhaul of an agency that discriminated against Latinos under the 24-year tenure of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, reports KSL.com. Penzone has worked to improve the agency’s compliance with the overhaul and is seeking ways to restore trust with the county’s Latino community. Penzone has been praised for reforms such as retraining dispatchers to screen out race-based calls that don’t allege criminal conduct, so that police are not sent out if there is no genuine public safety concern. 

While the county has made modest improvements, it is far from ridding itself of bias. A recent audit of traffic stops in the county by Arizona State University researchers found the average length of traffic stops for Latinos remained three minutes longer than for white drivers, though this disparity has decreased since the overhaul. Penzone has also been criticized for allowing federal authorities to check the immigration status of people held in jails, though he does not detain people after their ordered release for this purpose like his predecessor had done.

Florida Judges are Not Blameless for Biased Plea Deals

After the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published its “Bias on the bench” series identifying racially disparate felony drug sentences in Florida, “judges were quick to wash their hands of responsibility,” report Michael Braga, Josh Salman, and Daphne Duret. Although they pointed to prosecutors and the plea negotiation process as the sources of the problem, Florida’s judges have the authority to be involved early in plea negotiations and to reject deals that they see as unjust.

Judges have been slow to embrace technology that would enable them to analyze trends in the thousands of criminal case decisions made every year. The Herald-Tribune recommends that judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement officers use data to monitor their outcomes, increase their racial diversity to better relate to clients, and receive implicit bias training to overcome biases.

Racially Biased Jury Selection in North Carolina

North Carolina prosecutors’ “peremptory challenges are indeed a vehicle for veiled racial bias that results in juries less sympathetic to defendants of color,” writes Wake Forest Law Professor Ronald Wright in a New York Times Op-Ed, based on his forthcoming journal article with Kami Chavis and Gregory Parks. By collecting statewide jury selection records as part of the Jury Sunshine Project, they found that prosecutors removed twice as many potential black jurors as white jurors. Nonwhite jurors were statistically more likely to acquit, which may be leading to prosecutors using peremptory challenges to shape juries that are less sympathetic to defendants. 

Biased jury selection is problematic because it results in defendants not being judged by a jury that reflects a cross-section of their community—a Sixth Amendment violation—and contributes to the perceived illegitimacy of the justice system among communities of color. To remedy the problem, Wright recommends that state courts follow the model of Washington state and outlaw peremptory challenges premised on factors highly correlated with race, like “prior contact with law enforcement” or “living in a high-crime neighborhood.” He also recommends that states make all jury selection information available online and searchable. 

 
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