Florida’s justice system doesn’t look like Florida | Editorial #Trending β€οΈπŸ’Ÿβ€οΈ

It’s troubling but not surprising: Florida’s criminal justice system looks nothing like the communities it serves. At every step of their interaction with the system, Floridians of color are far more likely to encounter someone white holding the power to influence their fate. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Kavitha Surana chronicled recently, the justice system remains overwhelmingly white, from police on the beat to judges in the courtroom. The findings show the incredible challenges with diversifying law enforcement and making the justice system fair to everyone.

A Times survey found that nearly 80 percent of the 425 top officials in the state’s criminal justice system are white, even though whites comprise 53 percent of the state’s population. About a third of Florida’s jail population and more than half of its prison population is Black, even though Black people comprise less than 17 percent of the state’s residents. More than a quarter of the state’s population identifies as Hispanic, and while that percentage is projected to increase, Hispanic representation across many Florida jurisdictions is still lagging in the criminal justice system.

Experts blame a host of factors for these disparities. The racial imbalance among the prison population was driven partly by drug-war and zero-tolerance policies over the past several decades that focused more on punishment than treatment, a backward approach that hurt generations of families and fell disproportionately on people of color.

In terms of minority representation in police departments and other parts of the criminal justice system, many of the same hurdles exist that exist in other job sectors. Applicants lack educational opportunities, practical experience and the corporate and political connections that can help land a job. But minorities who’ve climbed the ranks of the justice system in Florida point to other factors, from a historical mistrust that minorities have with law enforcement to the culture of a justice system that in many places devalues β€” or is outright hostile to β€” the concept of diversity.

β€œHistorically, individuals in certain communities felt oppressed by law enforcement,” said Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Daryl Manning, a Black man who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and who came to Florida two decades ago with no connections. β€œWe can’t stick our heads in the sand and think things will get better on their own without an active stance.”

Across Tampa Bay, the lack of representation has been slow to change at law enforcement agencies, the Times analysis found. Police departments and sheriff’s offices are the front lines of the criminal justice system, and those who climb the ladder help shape the tenor of race relations in a community.

The Times requested the most recent demographic staff data from six major Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies. In the data provided, most are more than 70 percent white.

Of all the agencies surveyed, the Tampa Police Department patrols the most diverse population, yet is the least reflective of it and has made the least progress. The agency was 69 percent white in 2010 and remained 69 percent white in 2020. About 57 percent of Tampa residents identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or other.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is 78 percent white. Broadly, that reflects the county’s demographics, which is 75 percent white. But the pool of Black deputies is sharply tilted toward employment in the jail and courts. Patrol officers, who interact most with residents over tickets and arrests, are 84 percent white.

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As the Times noted, some Tampa Bay agencies bristle at comparisons of police force demographics to residential data. They also point to a number of programs they have put in place to boost minority recruiting and retention. The Tampa Police Department offers scholarships to some candidates to help offset the $8,000 cost of attending the police academy, and interim Chief Ruben Delgado said the department is taking additional steps, including creating an extra recruiting position. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri blames that lack of diversity at top levels on a five-year hiring freeze during the Great Recession. Between 2012 and 2021, the number of minority deputies on the patrol side has grown by 4 percentage points. β€œWe are making some progress,” Gualtieri said, β€œbut there’s room to do more.”

The disparities may have been decades in the making, but cities and counties have a broad interest in building a diverse justice system. Police, prosecutors and judges should understand the life experiences of those in their communities. Agencies looking for a more representative workforce need to continue focusing on recruiting, hiring, training and promotion. Leaders should also build relationships through youth, civic and other programs to foster stronger relationships. If the data show anything, it’s that the disparity gap won’t close without clear goals, hard work and sustained engagement.

β€œTo be a successful 21st century law enforcement agency, it is vital that you have a workforce that reflects the community that you serve,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. β€œWhen you look around the country, and you see a lot of the problems agencies are having, it’s because they don’t have the diversity.”

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

Florida’s justice system doesn’t look like Florida | Editorial

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