Criminal Justice

The Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the West Palm Beach Mayor’s Task Force on Racial & Ethnic Equality is in the process of identifying racial and ethnic disparities in West Palm Beach’s criminal justice system.

Committee members are identifying best practices, knowledge and research needed to eliminate the disparities before making recommendations for change.

We recognize that YOU have knowledge to share about criminal justice in West Palm Beach. Members of this committee are listening!

Draft Priorities

At the December 5th Racial & Ethnic Equality Action Summit held by the Task Force, West Palm Beach residents shared two top priorities regarding Criminal Justice. The subcommittee is currently discussing these priorities:

  1. Building a diverse team of police officers and creating opportunities for the community to participate in a police review or advisory board
    • Review hiring, promotion, and retention policies and practices in the WPB Police Department
    • Assess if and how community members can serve on a review or advisory board.
  2. Assessing racial equity training and tools for increased cultural sensitivity of WPB police officers.
    • Revisit training requirements for officers on racial equity and related topics
    • Explore ways of increasing cultural sensitivity of police officers

    The Criminal Justice Subcommittee meets monthly on the 2nd Wednesday of the month from 1-2:30 pm. The next meeting is February 10, 2021.

Sign up for updates about the subcommittee meetings (and Zoom links) and/or for our monthly Task Force email newsletter. Share comments about these priorities on our Facebook page.

We update this page regularly. Last updated 2/5/2021.

Inspired by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrery and others, the song “Now I Can’t Breathe” by West Palm Beach resident and songwriter Kitty Lundan has earned national attention. Lundan joins Americans diverse in age, race and ethnicity who have joined together to demand reforms in the wake of numerous fatal police shootings of unarmed African Americans across the U.S.

Did You Know?

While many police brutality and fatal police shootings are not prosecuted in criminal court, victims and the families of victims have been able to pursue civil judgments, which cost millions of taxpayers dollars each year.

  • Since 2000, blacks in West Palm Beach have been killed by police 5 times more often than whites or Hispanics.
  • Of the 440 people arrested in Palm Beach County for “selling within 1,000 feet” charges in 2006, 92% were black.
  • In Palm Beach County, black drivers are 3 times more likely to be pulled over by County Sheriff’s deputy for that offense than a white driver (2014 study).
  • In West Palm Beach, where 2 in every 3 homicide victims were Black males (from 2009-2019), only 30 percent of those cases were ever solved.
  • Blacks are imprisoned six times more often than whites and two times more often than Hispanics (2017).

SOURCES:

Why Does Racial Equity Matter?

Numerous studies reveal that the high rate of imprisonment of people of color is excessive for public safety goals. People with criminal convictions are less likely to find employment or access to housing and public services.

The disproportionate incarceration of people from low-income communities removes economic resources from communities and perpetuates cycles of poverty. It also drives cycles of justice system involvement for a growing numbers of black Americans, making criminal justice contact the norm in their lives.

There are many reasons behind the worsening racial disparities in the criminal justice system, including the decline of the manufacturing sector, policy initiatives that typically increase racial disparity, bias in discretionary decision-making, growing inequality and its disproportionate effect on communities of color, and the allocation of resources.

There are four features in the justice system that contribute to its disparate racial impact, according to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., author of the study, “Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Racial Justice System.”

1. Policing policies, sentencing laws, and other related policies may appear to be race-neutral, but they are key sources of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

  • Plea bargain guidelines often disadvantage blacks and Latinos;
  • Sentencing laws often punish more harshly the types of offenses for which people of color tend to be arrested.

In 2010, for example, blacks were 3-7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to a report by the ACLU. Whites comprise more than two-thirds of drug users and are likely a similar proportion of sellers. Yet the vast majority of those who serve time in prison for drug offenses are people of color, not whites.

Drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs near school (and other) zones. When these zones cover an expansive range in neighborhoods with high concentrations of residents, they disproportionately affect residents of urban, high poverty areas. People of color are more likely to live in high-poverty areas due to centuries of unequal access to resources, education, jobs and healthcare.

Ex-offenders face barriers to participating in helping to change these policies. In 2020, a federal appeals court ruled to uphold a Florida law requiring up to 1 million felons in the state to finish paying fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.

For decades, West Palm Beach expanded its drug-free zones until nearly the entire city was overlapped with different zones. According to a 2007 Palm Beach Post study of the effects of drug-free zone laws:
 

  • Of 440 people arrested in Palm Beach County in 2006 on “selling within 1,000″ charges, 92% were black;
  • Application of the law was inconsistent, with cases dismissed for 16% of white defendants and 6.6% of black defendants;
  • The numbers of people sent to prison on selling within 1,000 charges climbed from the previous decade, with black convicts outnumbering whites 12 to 1.

2. Criminal justice practitioners’ use of discretion is – often unintentionally – influenced by racial bias.

One need not be white to have implicit racial bias: unintentional and unconscious racial biases that affect decisions and behaviors. It is possible for someone to be of African descent, or to be Latino, for instance, and to assume that certain groups (e.g., low-income African Americans, Nicaraguans, etc.) have a less desirable “culture” than others. Racial bias is linked to the stereotypes and “single stories” pervasive in news media and popular culture.

Most Americans deny that they are racist and may claim not to see color at all. Nonetheless, they may hold onto negative racial stereotypes that associate blackness—and brownness—with a propensity to commit crime and acts of violence. These stereotypes contribute to associations of whiteness with safety, law and order.

Recent high-profile killings by police officers are further evidence of the need to improve police practices and accountability. When people of color are placed under greater police scrutiny, they are disadvantaged throughout the criminal justice system.

Since 2000, police in West Palm Beach have fired guns at blacks in 45 incidents since 2000. In only 4 of these incidents, victims shot back at police. In comparison, since 2000, police in West Palm Beach have shot at 11 whites and 8 Hispanics–including those who did shoot at police. learn more

Click on the titles below to learn how bias plays a role in the criminal justice system.

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Police

Police officers are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for investigative reasons. Once pulled over, people of color are more likely than whites to be searched, and blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested.

According to University of Kansas Professor Charles Epp, author of the book Pulled Over, “Officers making investigatory stops commonly have decided to carry out a criminal investigation before they make the stop; they then identify, or create, a pretext to justify the stop.”

In Palm Beach County, African American and Hispanic residents tend to be stopped by the police for citations such as a rolling stop or failure to signal a turn or lane change. Black drivers in Florida in 2014 are twice as likely to be ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt than white drivers, according to report by American Civil Liberties Union. In Palm Beach County, black drivers are 3 times more likely to be pulled over by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy for that offense than a white driver.

When Palm Beach County community organization PEACE (People Engaged in Active Community Efforts) spoke with numerous local residents who experienced these stops, residents said that often no reason was provided for the stop, or that they were asked questions such as, “Whose car is this?” or “What are you doing in this area?”

Judges

Even after accounting for differences in crime severity and criminal history, judges are more likely to sentence people of color (versus whites) to prison and jail and to give them longer sentences.

Prosecutors

Prosecutors are more likely to charge people of color with crimes that carry heavier sentences than whites.

Others in the Courtroom and Beyond

Unconscious racial bias also affects other participants in the criminal justice system.

One study found that in narrative reports used for sentencing, juvenile probation officers attributed the problems of black youth to their attitudes, values and personalities, while considering those of white youth to be related to their social environments. Studies of mock jurors have also uncovered racial bias in the evaluation of evidence.

Studies of disparities in school discipline – from rates of out-of-school suspensions to police referrals – point to substantial racial disparities in school discipline. The Departments of Education and Justice declare that these disparities “are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.”

3. Key segments of the criminal justice system are underfunded, putting blacks and Latinos – who are disproportionately low-income – at a disadvantage.

Most states devote too little funding to their indigent defense programs.

Pretrial release often requires a money bond, which may pressure low-income individuals to accept less favorable plea deals. The underfunding of public drug treatment programs lessons the low-income individuals’ access to treatment and sentencing alternatives.

In 2008, there were 579 publicly funded beds for substance abuse treatment in Palm Beach County. In 2018, budget cuts reduced that number to 179, and today there are far fewer, despite the enormous and lasting impacts of the opioid crisis in Palm Beach County.

4. Criminal justice policies often exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities

The criminal justice system does not address many of the root causes of crime: it reacts to – rather than prevents – crime. Excessive spending on criminal justice programs limits public funds that can be allocated to crime prevention and drug treatment. Because of their higher rates of incarceration, victimization, and poverty, people of color are disproportionately affected by these shortcomings in policy.

Barriers to Re-Entry into the Workforce

Criminal conviction creates a barrier to securing steady employment, and those with felony drug convictions are disqualified from public assistance and public housing in many areas. In addition, allocating public resources to punitive programs comes at the expense of investments in crime prevention and drug treatment programs.

A Florida law banning felons with drug convictions from receiving food stamps led to an increase in prison recidivism rates. A study of the law’s effects (released in 2018) found that ex-felons turned to monetary-based crimes in order to make ends meet because they were denied access to social-welfare programs after leaving jail.

If they have a past conviction, people of color may also be barred from diversion programs and alternative courts. Individuals on parole or probation may be required to report at locations where there is little public transportation.

Consider Health Impacts

According to the Palm Beach Post, at least 1 in 5 of the 1,926 incarcerated youth that have tested positive for COVID-19 live in Florida. In West Palm Beach, 33 youth and 17 staff were infected with COVID-19 at the Palm Beach Youth Academy, managed by Texas’s Sequel Youth and Family Services.

The Prison Policy Institute’s 2019 study, Arrest, Release, Repeat, found that people who go to county and city jails are far more likely have a substance use disorder, suffer from a serious mental illness, and lack health insurance. They’re far more likely to be unemployed, have incomes under $10,000, and lack a high school diploma. Racial disparities in housing, education and health contribute to racial inequity found in the justice system—and the cycle continues.

5. People of color are also disproportionately affected by crime.

Communities of color terms are also disproportionately affected by crime: a consequence of decades of racially biased policies and practices and limited access to jobs, education, healthcare, etc.

Whose Lives Matter?

In West Palm Beach, 2 out of 3 homicide victims were Black males during the period from 2009 through 2019. Yet in West Palm Beach, killings of black males were solved less often — about 30% of the time — than when the victim was of any other race or sex, as the Palm Beach Post discovered after reviewing law-enforcement reports, coroners’ notes and court filings for the more than 1,000 homicides reported in the county during this time frame. Victims’ families blame police indifference, stating that investigators don’t return calls, or rarely provide updates.

Targets of Fraud & Scams

People of color are also more likely to be victims of fraud. In 2020, for example, a Delray Beach doctor was deeply involved in schemes at 50 addiction treatment facilities — on a scale that reached $681 million, preying on young addicts and scamming insurers out of tens of millions of dollars.

According to the Federal Trade Commission’s 2011 survey on fraud prevalence in the United States, an estimated 10.8 percent of U.S. adults – 25.6 million people – were victims of fraud, and African American and Latino consumers were more likely to become fraud victims than non-Hispanic whites.

In the FTC’s workshops and conferences, however, many have observed a general reluctance and embarrassment to report fraud among people of color. This may be due to distrust the government, lack of awareness about where to complain, doubts that their complaints will make a difference, or concerns about encountering the government because of their immigration status.

In West Palm Beach, as elsewhere, immigrants are also victims of scams. A woman identifying herself as an ICE agent recently robbed a Hispanic man in West Palm Beach. Other victims of similar crimes may fear speaking out.

Hate Crimes

Racially motivated hate crimes (often targeting African Americans) are also on the rise in Florida, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated two-thirds of hate crimes go unreported to police. The increase in crime is high enough for the state to rank No. 8 in a national comparison of the biggest rise in hate crimes during that time, the according to a recent study.

What Do Experts Recommend To “Close The Gap”?

1. Address socioeconomic inequality that underlies differential crime rates

  • Maximize utilization of available community resources
    Pima County, AZ Officials and community groups helped increase the utilization of community resources by creating geocoded maps to identify communities with high proportions of youth referred to detention and then developing community asset maps to find available program services for at-risk youth in those areas.
  • “Ban the Box”
    A criminal record is a strong barrier to employment, and therefore to successful re-entry. To reduce this collateral consequence, many jurisdictions have passed laws or issued administrative orders to remove the question about conviction history from initial job applications and to delay a background check inquiry until later in the hiring process.
  • Opting out of or modifying welfare and food stamp ban for people with drug convictions

2. Reallocate resources to create a fair playing field

  • Offer Spanish-language resources:
    Santa Cruz County’s probation department addressed difficulties of communicating with Latino families by increasing the number Spanish-speaking staff to match the proportion of such youth at the detention center. The department also doubled the number of youth diversions by creating programs to meet the needs of Latino youth, designing programs to meet regional needs across the county, and expanding bilingual staff at a local community provider. Overall, these efforts helped lead to a 25% reduction in the average daily detention population, and a simultaneous 22% reduction in the Latino representation in the juvenile hall population.
  • Establishing alternatives to incarceration for low-income defendants
    In Berks County, Pennsylvania, between 2007 and 2011, officials were able to reduce the number of youth in secure detention, most of whom were youth of color, by 67% in part by increasing reliance on alternatives. These included non-secure shelters for youth who can’t safely return home, evening reporting centers, electronic monitoring, and expanded used of evidence-based treatment programs.
  • Look for alternatives to police intervention.
    Oakland, California’s Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) has launched MH First Oakland (Mental Health First), a new model for non-police response to mental health crises. The service will provide a police-free emergency support service to folks in Oakland experiencing a mental health crisis. It will be available in the form of a free hotline, when there are currently no other mental health support options available. MH First Oakland leads with the principle that police should not be involved when responding to a mental health crisis unless asked by mental health responders as a last resort. MH First will respond to mental health crises including, but not limited to, psychiatric emergencies, substance use disorder support, and  domestic violence and intimate partner violence situations.

3. Minimize disparate racial impact of ostensibly race-neutral policies

  • Assess racial impact:
    Jurisdictions have been able to reduce racial disparities in confinement by documenting racial bias inherent in certain risk assessment instruments (RAI) used for criminal justice decisionmaking. Iowa, Connecticut, and Oregon have passed legislation requiring a racial impact analysis before codifying a new crime or modifying the criminal penalty for an existing crime.
  • Address Upstream Disparities:
    Officials in Clayton County, Georgia reduced school-based juvenile court referrals by creating a system of graduated sanctions to standardize consequences for youth who committed low-level misdemeanor offenses, comprising the majority of school referrals. The reforms resulted in a 46% reduction in school-based referrals of African American youth.
  • Repeal laws with racially disparate impacts
    Through persistent efforts, advocates in Illinois were able to secure the repeal of a 20-year-old law that required the automatic transfer of 15- and 16-year-olds accused of certain drug offenses within 1,000 feet of a school or public housing. Advocates established a broad coalition of supporters who emphasized that the law was racially biased, unnecessary, and unfair, causing youth of color to comprise 99% of those automatically transferred.

4. Address implicit racial bias among criminal justice professionals

  • Eliminating racial disparities in charging decisions:
    The Vera Institute of Justice Prosecution and Racial Justice (PRJ) program has worked with various jurisdictions to reduce unwarranted racial and ethnic disparities caused by prosecutorial decisionmaking. In Milwaukee, prosecutors were filing drug paraphernalia charges against 73% of black suspects, compared to 59% of white suspects. The prosecutor’s office was able to eliminate these disparities by reviewing data on outcomes, stressing diversion to treatment or dismissal, and requiring attorneys to consult with supervisors prior to filing such charges.
  • Establishing objective criteria and guidelines for decision-making
    In Dorchester, 52% of nonwhite defendants arrested in a school zone for a drug crime received an enhanced charge, while only 15% of whites received such a charge. Based on these findings, judicial leadership worked with police and prosecutors to develop guidelines to more fairly handle school zone cases.

5. Focus on prevention

  • Acknowledging the relationship between violence and trauma
    In Philadelphia, professor John A. Rich and his colleagues at the Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University, developed Healing Hurt People, a hospital-based, trauma-informed, community-focused violence intervention program for victims of violence who are at high risk of further exposure to violence. After their discharge from the hospital, victims of violence are assigned to social work staff and outreach workers who assess the person’s living arrangements and environment to determine if they are at risk or safe. An individual having symptoms of trauma is invited to enroll in a trauma-informed program that includes a deeper assessment, case management, and navigation to systems that may be otherwise inaccessible to these young people. Youth also receive mentoring, powerful group interventions in which young people have the opportunity to process their trauma, and where needed, more specific therapy.

Major Support Organizations

Leading organizations that strive to advance new state and local policies.

The Sentencing Project
The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by producing groundbreaking research to promote reforms in sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration.

Vera Institute of Justice
The mission of the Vera Institute is to urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities. “We work with others who share our vision to tackle the most pressing injustices of our day—from the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the loss of public trust in law enforcement, to the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence.”

Research Resources

Online resources focused on new state and local policies.

Racial-Ethnic Fairness
In recent years, better data collection and analysis in many localities has helped spur the development of strategies to reduce disparities among youth in contact with the juvenile justice system. This work is paving the way for a more equitable juvenile justice system that will treat youth fairly regardless of their race or ethnicity.

The Racial-Ethnic Fairness section of the Juvenile Justice Exchange’s Resource Hub will provide you with an overview of salient issues and links to information on each approach, as well as the most recent research, cutting edge reforms, model policies, best practices, links to experts, and toolkits to take action.

West Palm Beach Police Department Standard Operating Procedure III-13 on Use of Force/Injured Persons (Revised Aug. 5, 2020)
While these newly revised operating procedures do not mention race specifically, they are aimed at ensuring officers “will use only the degree of force necessary to accomplish their lawful objectives.”

West Palm Beach Police Department Standard Operating Procedure I-4 on Unbiased Policing (Revised Nov. 11, 2019)
This document outlines the West Palm Beach police department’s policies regarding unbiased policing.

Articles and Publications

Articles, reports, and papers focused on new state and local policies.

An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of African Americans in the Justice System (2018)
This brief presents an overview of the ways in which America’s history of racism and oppression continues to manifest in the criminal justice system, and a summary of research demonstrating how the system perpetuates the disparate treatment of black people. The evidence presented here helps account for the hugely disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on millions of black people, their families, and their communities.

Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing
This is the final report of the task force assembled by President Obama to assess policing practices and offer recommendations on how those practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust. In this short period, the task force conducted seven public listening sessions across the country and received testimony and recommendations from a wide range of community and faith leaders, law enforcement officers, academics, and others to ensure its recommendations would be informed by a diverse range of voices.

Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Policymakers & Practitioners (The Sentencing Project)
This manual begins with an overview of some of the identified causes of racial disparity and explores how these are often manifested in the daily operations of the criminal justice system. The manual’s central focus is on the specific ways in which disparities may result from decision-making at various points in the criminal justice process, and the steps that can be taken by criminal justice agencies to counter those effects. It is designed for use as a reference manual for practitioners and offers strategies for assessing racial disparity. It also offers practices, procedures and policies to reduce disparity at each stage of the system.

Incorporating Racial Equity into Criminal Justice Reform (The Sentencing Project)
This briefing paper provides an overview of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and a framework for developing and implementing remedies for these disparities. It begins with a description of the rationale for incorporating racial equity as a goal of an overall criminal justice reform strategy. Then it documents trends in racial disparity and assesses the various causal factors that have produced these outcomes. Next, it identifies a selection of best practices for addressing disparities, along with recommendations for implementation. Finally, it provides a guide for establishing rigorous metrics for success.

Combating Fraud in African American and Latino Communities: The FTC’s Comprehensive Strategic Plan
This is a report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) detailing a comprehensive strategy to reduce fraud in communities of color, and analyzing current law enforcement and consumer outreach and education initiatives. The FTC’s strategy to reduce fraud in African American and Latino communities is grounded in prevention, law enforcement, and consumer outreach and education. In each of these areas, the FTC’s strategies have been evolving for years as part of the agency’s fraud program, and more recently in its Every Community Initiative and Legal Services Collaboration projects. The strategy presented below is supported by new research and insights into the effectiveness of the FTC’s law enforcement and consumer education campaigns. Integral to the evolution of the FTC’s plan has been the thoughtful input and participation of state and federal government agencies, organizations that serve African American and Latino communities, and academics and researchers.

Toolbox

Practical resources and interactive tools designed to help both on-the-ground practitioners and citizens.

Line of Fire: Police Shootings
In an unrivaled look at police shootings in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast since 2000, The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 detail more than 250 incidents of officers firing guns. The shootings killed 86 people and wounded 97. Almost all of the shootings were deemed to be just. Find cases by race of the victim, shooting location, police agency and more. Click on figures or on summaries for details of each case. Check reports on each agency.

Homicide Tracker (The Palm Beach Post)
This online database tracks each homicide in Palm Beach County dating to 2009. The tracker is a compilation of law-enforcement and medical-examiner data. It has each victim’s race, gender and age as well as the time and place of the killing. Brief narratives detail what happened, and links at the bottom of each entry direct to additional reporting on the case.

The database is about faces as well as facts. Most entries include a photo of those who have been killed. Some come from online obituaries and social-media accounts. Others are shared with The Post by parents, siblings, children and friends. The smiles suggest the human toll of violence.

The database also maps where the more than 1,000 homicides have taken place, down to the block on the street.

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