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Investigation Reveals Discrimination in Florida’s Sentencing System

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has published numerous articles relating to a study the newspaper did reviewing crimes in Florida from 2004 through 2015. According to the Herald-Tribune, “The investigation revealed that blacks are more likely to be found guilty than whites in Florida; they are more likely to spend time behind bars; their sentences are usually longer, and they are not given as many opportunities to avoid incarceration through pretrial diversion.”

The Herald-Tribune found that conservatives were generally harder on blacks than Democrats, with GOP judges sentencing blacks to 21 percent more time in jail or prison than white defendants busted on third-degree felonies. One judge who defied those numbers, however, was Dennis Murphy, a registered Republican who is a judge for the 11th Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County. 

“That’s something I try to take to heart and apply to cases across the board,” Murphy told the Herald-Tribune. “Does this sentence fit with what I have been doing? Does it fit the crime? Does it fit the others I have given out? I try to give each case individual consideration. I am trying not to do this in a vacuum.” 

According to data from the Florida Department of Corrections, Miami-Dade County ranked 63rd in the state in terms of the additional confinement given to black defendants. Data from the Offender Based Transaction System (OBTS), however, showed the county ranking sixth in the state. 

Sentencing guidelines were first enacted in Florida in 1983 with two subsequent revisions before the Criminal Punishment Code became effective in 1998. The Code allowed for greater upward discretion in sentencing provided for increased penalties and lowered mandatory prison thresholds. 

While maximum sentences for criminal offenses are established under Florida Statute § 775.082, prosecutors are required to complete criminal code scoresheets in felony cases in order to determine minimum sentences for alleged offenders. Scoresheets are complex documents that take a significant number of factors into consideration when determining an individual’s sentence. 

Scoresheets assign each factor a predetermined numerical value, and prosecutors assign those numbers to an alleged offender’s primary offense, any additional offenses, and all previous convictions (unless the alleged offender has not been convicted of a crime in the previous 10 years). A total of 44 points or less usually means the lowest permissible sentence is a non-state prison sanction, but a total exceeding 44 points means the minimum sentence is established by subtracting 28 from the total and decreasing the remainder by 25 percent. 

If you have been accused of any kind of felony offense, such as a violent crime, it is in your best interest to immediately contact an experienced Miami criminal defense attorney. Even a minor error by a prosecutor can have a dramatic impact on the length of a prison sentence. 

You will want to be sure that you have a lawyer fighting not only to possibly get the criminal charges reduced or dismissed but also to review the prosecutor’s scoresheet to challenge any mistakes that might have been committed to calculating the scoresheet. Evan Hoffman is an experienced criminal defense lawyer in North Miami who has offices in Miami-Dade County and Broward County, Florida.

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