Miami-Dade County

Cops, courts in Miami-Dade harsher on blacks. New study details stark racial disparities.

Howard Simon, ACLU executive director for Florida, left, and Ruben Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Howard Simon, ACLU executive director for Florida, left, and Ruben Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

No group in Miami-Dade County gets treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than blacks, according to a joint study released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Miami.

Researchers, who analyzed five years of data between 2010 and 2015, found stark differences across the board.

Blacks were incarcerated at a rate about five times that of other ethnic groups.

Though blacks make up less than 20 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, they accounted for almost 40 percent of the arrests.

In the top 10 policing agencies in Miami-Dade, blacks and black Hispanics were arrested at a significantly higher rate than whites and white Hispanics. Arrest rates for blacks were higher in downtown Miami, on Miami Beach and in predominately black neighborhoods than they were in other parts of Miami-Dade.

Blacks were less likely to be released by posting bond, were held longer during pretrial detention and were more likely to serve the most severe sentences when it comes to felonies.

Blacks were disproportionately charged with crimes, convicted at a higher rate and more likely to be charged with drug offenses.

“Racial disparities occurred at every stage of the criminal justice system.” said Howard Simon, ACLU executive director for Florida. “Race and disparity shape your treatment.”

The study, which Simon said was launched after the shooting deaths of young armed black men around the country, examined racial and ethnic disparities throughout county neighborhoods. The ACLU said was the first time scientific research has been linked to previously reported anecdotal evidence in the region.

The study did not break down treatment by income levels but concluded that money did play a key role. Researchers found the inability to bond out of jail or pay for pretrial intervention, more likely than not, resulted in tougher treatment for blacks down the line when it comes to sentencing and time spent in jail.

“The disparities are very clear,” said Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade’s public defender. “It starts when somebody can not afford to pay bail. Then it’s compounded when somebody stays in custody. Prosecutors have more power. Defendants are more desperate and take pleas. They end up with a criminal record.”

Ruben Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the study clearly shows “there is an over-representation of guilt” when it comes to blacks and the criminal justice system. Still, he said, the findings really don’t shed much new light.

“I don’t think this is alarming to anyone,” he said. “People think that things have changed, but the benefit of the report is to have validation through research.”

One police department challenged the findings. Miami Beach police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said the percentages of arrests of blacks on Miami Beach and downtown Miami were skewed because the population of visitors swells more than other areas.

“Our weekly population sometimes doubles or triples,” he said. “We’re a tourist capital. A revenue-maker.”

Responding to the findings, the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida said some reforms are in the works. They include: Addressing pretrial detention with promises to appear, granting civil citations instead of arrests for low-level crimes, offering holistic services to reduce gun violence and diversity training for trial judges.

“We will study this report and use it to inform our continuing work with the goal of eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system,” the 11th Circuit said in a released statement.

The findings echo a recent investigation by the Miami Herald into the small Central Dade village of Biscayne Park, which came about after its police chief was indicted on federal civil rights charges for the arrest of a black teen who was charged with four home burglaries.

The Herald reported on an internal probe by the village that found police officers were urged to arrest blacks and outsiders from the village with records to close out open home burglary cases. In the case of one teen, only identified as T.D. in the federal indictment, police charged him with four unsolved home burglaries. After reading the arrest reports — all were similar and had very little information — and receiving little help from the village officers, state prosecutors dropped the charges.

The ACLU conducted the research with UM sociology professors Nick Petersen and Marisa Omori and their students. Jeanne Baker, chair of the ACLU’s police practices committee, said the next step is to send teams of ACLU employees to meet with elected leaders, police departments and judges throughout Miami-Dade.

“We’re going to come up with a series of reforms at every level,” Baker said. “It may take us a long time to solve it.”

Miami-Dade Public Defender Martinez said his agency will begin keeping tabs on prosecutors and judges to single out who agreed to the most settlements and pretrial detention agreements that public defenders deem the most unfair. Then, he said, “we’re going to challenge it in court. I think you’re going to see change just from that.”