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Race & Justice News: Racial Impact of Florida’s Criminal Laws

September 27, 2019
State supreme courts less reflective of nation’s diversity, Florida lawmakers partner with researchers to assess racial impact of legislation, increase in Virginia's marijuana arrests sparks calls for change, and more in Race & Justice News.

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State Supreme Courts Less Reflective of Nation’s Diversity

State supreme courts today are less reflective of the country’s diversity than a generation ago, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center that examined 60 years of national data. State supreme courts hold substantial power within the United States’ justice system even though they attract less attention than the U.S. Supreme Court. Just 15 percent of state supreme court seats are held by blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native Americans even though these racial and ethnic groups comprise 40 percent of the nation’s population. Twenty-four states currently have only white justices on their supreme court benches, including eight states in which people of color are at least a quarter of the state’s population.

The report’s authors, Alicia Bannon and Laila Robbins, argue that the lack of diversity within state supreme courts diminishes their support from the communities they serve and limits the ability of the courts “to develop a legal jurisprudence for an increasingly diverse America.” In the New York Times, the authors note that judicial elections, more so than appointments, create hurdles for people of color seeking seats on state supreme courts.

Florida Lawmakers Partner with Researchers to Assess Racial Impact of Legislation

The Florida Senate has contracted with Florida State University researchers to study how proposed criminal justice legislation could disproportionately affect people of color in the state, the Associated Press reports. African Americans comprise nearly half of the 96,000 people imprisoned in Florida—and thousands more are incarcerated in local jails. Hispanics make up nearly 1 in 8 of the state’s prison population. 

The researchers will use existing data to predict how legislative proposals will affect the state’s communities of color. “The new policy, while limited in scope, is a good step to better inform lawmakers about the potential racial and ethnic disparity in sentencing reform legislation,” said Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives for The Sentencing Project. This analysis will be conducted for a limited number of bills and will require agreement from the criminal justice committee leaders. Florida will join Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oregon in incorporating racial impact statements in the criminal justice legislative process. Several other states are also considering similar policies.

Increase in Virginia’s Marijuana Arrests Sparks Calls for Change

The number of marijuana arrests in Virginia reached its highest level in at least two decades in 2018, as other states have introduced measures to decriminalize marijuana, reports the Washington Post. An annual crime report by the Virginia State Police showed the number of arrests for marijuana offenses last year, nearly 29,000, had tripled since 1999. The vast majority of these arrests were for possession and African Americans, who comprise 20 percent of Virginia’s population, comprised 46 percent of those whose marijuana arrest in recent years was their first arrest.

This drastic increase has spurred elected leaders to propose reforms that could decriminalize marijuana in the state. “The numbers are staggering. An arrest and conviction like this stays with someone for the rest of their lives. More than half of those arrests were for young people. It limits housing, education and employment opportunities,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who has expressed support for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and expunging past convictions for possession. Virginia has begun to ease restrictions on medical marijuana but efforts to further decriminalize marijuana have stalled in the state legislature.

African Americans’ Skin Tone Impacts Justice System Contact

Darker skinned African Americans have a higher chance of having been arrested or incarcerated than those with lighter skin, Ellis P. Monk finds in “The Color of Punishment: African Americans, Skin Tone, and the Criminal Justice System,” published in Ethnic and Racial Studies. Race has long shaped the likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system—African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times that of whites. This research indicates intra-racial disparities also exist, with African Americans with the darkest complexions being over twice as likely to have ever been arrested or incarcerated compared to African Americans with the lightest complexions, after controlling for factors such as education and drug use. The study relied on nationally representative data from the National Survey of American Life 2001–2003.

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