If you make your living in and around our courts — no matter what kind of law you practice — you’ll want to read Bias on the bench, a fascinating investigative report published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune documenting clear patterns of racial bias in the way Florida state-court judges sentence black and white criminal defendants.
The Herald-Tribune analyzed millions of criminal cases from the past 12 years to build a first-of-its-kind database of Florida judges, comparing sentencing patterns on everything from their age and previous work experience to their race and gender. What this kind of impressive data journalism does best is take the focus off of anecdotal sideshows (which make for good TV but accomplish little); shining a light instead on systemic patterns of behavior that only become apparent when you sift through millions of data points (yay! for newspapers).
The aspect of these stories I found most interesting is the reporting on how unconscious biases likely account for most of the discrepancies we see between how black and white defendants are treated by our judges. Here’s an excerpt from the lead story entitled Florida’s broken sentencing system:
“Every human has biases,” said Scott Bernstein, a judge for the 11th Circuit Court in Miami who teaches diversity to judges. “The goal is not to rid yourself of biases, but to be conscious of them. As judges, we know to set biases aside. But when you’re not aware that this is going on in your brain, that’s where trouble comes.”
As observed by state Sen. Audrey Gibson, “Nobody is going to say they have personal biases, but if you see it in black and white, you may think differently.” For example, consider the counter-intuitive findings reported in Race and politics influence judicial decisions:
The Herald-Tribune analyzed millions of criminal cases from the past 12 years [documenting] . . . that race, politics and gender steer most biases on the bench — but like all humans, judges are full of contradictions.
Black judges, for example, don’t always show empathy toward their own race. In fact, no group has a wider gap when it comes to sentencing black and white defendants than black Republicans.
They sentence criminals of their own color to nearly 70 percent more confinement than white defendants for third-degree felonies.
Judges also defy political stereotypes.
Some Democrats in liberal South Florida are harder on blacks than many Republican judges across the state. In Republican strongholds, like Pensacola, there are GOP judges who sentence more like Democrats.
And last but not least, as reported in Lawmakers call for more judicial oversight, this data-driven project may lead to the kind of important legislative reforms you simply can’t get by focusing on individual bad actors. Sounds good to me.