The self-proclaimed Bold New City of the South is neither bold nor new when it comes to criminal justice. Racism and civil rights violations pervade Jacksonville, as they have in the past. I focus now on several abuses that are systemic and continuing.
Elected officials bear the blame for doing nothing about racist arrest policies and abuses of the rights of defendants and the public. Sheriff Mike Williams oversees a sheriff’s office that, for at least the past decade, made 30,000 or more arrests a year (that’s about 82 arrests on an average day). State Attorney Melissa Nelson is not only tasked with prosecuting crimes, she has another duty per her office’s website: to “ensure the pursuit of justice is done in a transparent, fair and thoughtful way.” Public defender Charlie Cofer, a retired judge, is responsible for defending arrested persons who are indigent, and accept such representation. Chief Judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit Mark Mahon has a lower profile than the others, but all abuses concerning how courts handle defendants can principally be laid at his feet.
These four individuals are aware of the problems, abuses and violations of the law I discuss here, but none of them has announced any concrete steps to address them.
THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IN JACKSONVILLE IS, AND HAS BEEN, RACIST
The JSO arrests 3 to 4 percent of Jacksonville’s population each year. The percentages are higher when one excludes children, and still higher in respect to adult black males. In 2017, despite the fact that black residents of Jacksonville represent about 31 percent of the total population, 58 percent of those arrested by the JSO on felony charges (or felony plus misdemeanor charges) were black, 50 percent of persons arrested on misdemeanor charges only were black, 56 percent of persons charged with traffic crimes were black, and 78 percent of juveniles arrested by the JSO were black.
The 2017 statistics were not flukes. For more than 10 years, the JSO’s own annual reports consistently show that more than half of all arrestees were black. Thus, black people in Jacksonville are at least twice as likely as others to be arrested.
There are many explanations, and racism plays a major part. No Jacksonville sheriff has tried to wholly strip out the pervasive racism. All recent sheriffs were insiders—JSO employees prior to being elected. They generally do what always has been done. Proportionally, JSO has far fewer black employees than the 31 percent that would reflect the makeup of Jacksonville’s population. Plus, JSO leadership is white.
JSO also enforces heavily in black neighborhoods and lightly in white ones. More than 10 ZIP codes had fewer than 100 felony arrests each in 2017, while four ZIP codes—with heavy black populations—had more than 500 felony arrests each in 2017. Past years were similar. If you over-patrol black neighborhoods and under-patrol white ones, you will end up with racially biased arrest statistics.
Since Sheriff Williams does not prioritize finding solutions to such problems, the heavy hand of the past continues to govern. In reviewing JSO information posted online, I am unable to find anything indicating that Williams is pushing to cure these racist impacts.
JACKSONVILLE’S BAIL PROCESS IS UNLAWFUL AND UNFAIR
I attended several first appearances this year and reviewed Florida law and other documents, and these are the problems I see when it comes to bail.
Judge Mark Mahon, and earlier chief judges, issued written bail guidelines, intending that local judges should follow them in setting bail. These guidelines set bail amounts higher than elsewhere in Florida, which means that more local residents end up incarcerated because they cannot afford bail. No law empowered Mahon to do this. Chief judges have simply made this their prerogative. As a result, bail policy reflects the opinions of one man, with no public input sought or allowed. Other judges need not follow these guidelines. Result: If you’re arrested, your bail depends on your judge.
Judges should document all bail-related reasoning, conclusions and acts. Florida law requires judges to consider 13 factors and make careful, individualized bail determinations. They don’t. My observations, court transcripts and the absence of any other explanatory documents suggest that local judges do not comply with Florida law concerning setting bail. Bail is set in a matter of seconds, for undisclosed reasons.
If any judge does follow Florida law, it happens in secret. However, I doubt this occurs, given the absence of probative documents.
Jacksonville’s current bail system is biased against the indigent. And, because black persons tend to have lower incomes, they are unduly harmed. New York City recently concluded that its taxpayers incurred $116 million/year in extra costs because so many defendants, who were eligible for release on bail, languished in jail due to poverty. Jacksonville has never computed such costs, but they surely total millions every year.
OTHER VIOLATIONS OF LAW AT TIME OF FIRST APPEARANCE
Because JSO arrests so many people (about 82 on an average day), and because Judge Mahon assigns too few judges to handle first appearances, justice ends up being slapdash. And judges end up violating the law.
This is how first appearances typically unfold. An average of 41 recent arrestees are processed each morning, with an average of 41 more processed each afternoon. These sessions average one hour in length. That means each defendant gets, on average, less than two minutes of the judge’s time. During that time, the judge states the charges and determines that the arrest had probable cause—amazingly, all arrests seem to have probable cause, which suggests that judges rubberstamp the JSO. Sometimes the judge also illegally requires defendants to accept or reject plea bargains and make other decisions in the absence of attorneys. During that brief period, the judge sets bail for the defendant and announces later hearing dates. When judges appoint the public defender as counsel, it is often at the end of their dealing with defendants.
For a judge to do all that in a minute or two, corners are inevitably cut.
One simple solution: All judges should immediately offer to appoint the public defender as counsel. And Judge Mahon should double the number of judges assigned to first appearances. I have advocated these solutions, without success or response.
Criminal justice in Jacksonville is racist. It discriminates against the indigent. It is slapdash and capricious and random. It causes excessive pretrial incarceration. It harms taxpayers. With everything taken into account, it is unjust and unlawful. All the major players need to start listening and administering justice in a lawful and careful manner. Sheriff Williams and Judge Mahon are silent on these matters, while Nelson and Cofer seem more concerned. Still, nothing
Jacksonville residents—who don’t like wasting taxpayer funds while needlessly harming defendants and depriving individuals of their statutory and constitutional rights—should complain loudly, and should refuse to re-elect public officials who turn a blind eye to injustice.
Lee is a retired attorney who lives in Jacksonville. For several years, he has watched while local elected officials have failed to administer criminal justice fairly and in accordance with the law.