2017 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Bias on the Bench

Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz, Elizabeth Johnson, Dak Le and Jennifer Borresen

Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

The digital presentation of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s “Bias on the bench” series opens with a chilling type scroll that physically sickened some readers.

Two crimes. Two defendants.

The same age. The same juvenile records.

The same points in Florida’s sentencing system, implying similar punishment.

One man received no jail time. The other four years in prison.

The first man is white, the second black.

Using an unprecedented analysis of more than 80 million electronic records in two statewide databases, the Herald-Tribune showed that bias reigns in Florida’s courtrooms.

Trial judges across the state sentence black defendants to far more time behind bars and offer them fewer second chances than white defendants who commit the same crimes and have similar criminal histories.

No news organization, university or government entity has ever published so comprehensive a study of the sentencing patterns of sitting judges. No entity has ever created a database that allows criminal court judges to be compared based on their age, gender, race, political affiliation and prior work experience. Florida’s voters have never before seen so much data about judges who appear on the ballot every six years.

Published online on Dec. 7, “Bias on the bench” went viral, receiving 250,000 hits and more than 1 million requests in the first week alone. Editorial boards from major newspapers across the state praised the work as groundbreaking and the New York Times requested permission to republish the data.

State lawmakers quickly called for more judicial oversight. The judge who heads up diversity courses for the state is using the series for the mandatory training of incoming judges.

The data, analysis and interviews in this series clearly point to a broken sentencing system. Despite decades of effort by Florida legislators to create and refine a point system under which defendants scoring the same points should receive matching sentences, the Herald-Tribune found that black defendants are consistently punished more severely. For first degree felonies, blacks spend 68 percent more time in prison than whites. For burglary, they spend 45 percent more time. For battery, it’s 30 percent. In nearly half of Florida’s 67 counties, blacks convicted of felony drug possession spend twice as much time in lockup.

The Herald-Tribune published all these results online and in its print editions. Readers also can go online and check racial disparities for nine different types of crimes in all 67 Florida counties. They can view sentencing patterns for more than 450 judges, check how many cases have been overturned on appeal and compare how political affiliations impact sentencing in each of Florida’s 20 circuits.

At a time when race relations have been roiled by police shootings and a turbulent presidential election, the Herald-Tribune’s series reveals the ongoing need for society to keep addressing the racial prejudice that has divided our country for hundreds of years.