Bias on the Bench
Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporters Emily Le Coz and Josh Salman spoke at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service on April 3.
The pair, who wrote the award-winning series "Bias on the Bench," were interviewed by University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Professor Sandra Chance.
Using an unprecedented analysis of more than 80 million records in two statewide databases, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune revealed apparent bias in Florida's sentencing system.
Published online on Dec. 7, the series 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.
As a result of the story, Florida lawmakers quickly called for more judicial oversight and several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee suggested a mandatory annual review of sentencing.
"What we found is when two defendants in the same community, in the same courtroom, go before the same judge for the same crime with the exact same score, in more than 60 percent of cases the African-American will get longer time than the white defendant," Salman said, adding that differences can be egregious.
Reactions to the series have varied. While some accept what was revealed and hope to bring change, many members of the state's judicial system — the ones whose apparent biases are being revealed — are pushing back.
A New College of Florida report, completed by Patrick McDonald, the college's director of data science, refuted the findings of the Herald-Tribune series, noting that the study lacked both transparency and control.
Nevertheless, McDonald wrote, "While the claims in 'Bias on the Bench' series are unsupportable, it is clear that the Herald Tribune has done a valuable service in calling attention to the existence of bias in the criminal justice system and in putting together a database intended to address the problem."
To read the series, go to http://projects.heraldtribune.com/bias/sentencing/. You can follow Le Coz on Twitter at @emily_lecoz and Salman at @JoshSalman.