In December, Jason, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft. The 20-year-old had been stealing from the cash register at the store he worked at in Jacksonville, Florida, taking about $500 in total.
“Back then, I wasn’t good at saving my money and I would spend my money on junk,” Jason said. “I would try to sneak the money from the drawer. Some I used for lunch. Some I kept for myself. Money, it tempted me.”
Jason said he knew he was in trouble when he got arrested. He had never been in trouble with the law before, but he knew this mistake,made as a young man, would likely follow him for the rest of his life if he was convicted.
“I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get another job,” Jason said. “My parents told me that they aren’t going to hire someone with a criminal record, especially for stealing from the company.”
But Jason got a second chance. The Jacksonville State’s Attorney’s Office offered to put him through a diversion program.
Jason was required to pay back the money he had stolen, make amends to the company, and successfully complete a class to help him change his behavior. In return, the charges against him were dropped and he avoided a criminal conviction.
However, as a Black man going through the system in Jacksonville, Jason’s outcome is an outlier. According to a new report from Prosecutorial Performance Indicators, Florida International University, and Loyola University, fewer than 10 percent of cases involving a Black person charged with a misdemeanor are sent through the diversion program. For white people, that number is closer to 5 percent and for Hispanic people it is below 5 percent, according to the report. Black people facing felony charges are also less likely than white people to have their cases diverted.
Jacksonville has made some strides in reducing the racial disparity in misdemeanor diversion. In 2017, Black people were less likely than white people to have their misdemeanor cases diverted. However, by 2019, Black people were more likely to have their misdemeanor cases diverted than white people because of efforts by the state attorney’s office to increase access to the diversion programs.
According to the report, there are numerous reasons why these racial disparities exist. For example, overpolicing in minority and low-income communities means that more people in those communities have prior records that exclude them from diversion programs. The report also cites lack of trust between communities of color and law enforcement and potential costs and fees that make it impossible for low-income people to successfully complete the programs.
“The results of the research support the lived experiences of many people of color in the criminal justice system,” said Melba Pearson, Director of Policy and Programs at Florida International University’s Center for the Administration of Justice and one of the co-managers of the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators Project. “It is our hope that our report sparks discussion, but more importantly, policy changes in prosecutors’ offices across the country.”
Pearson and her colleagues have suggested five changes to open access to diversion to more people.
First, the group is calling for prosecutors’ offices to collect more data to identify how their practices are working and do more research to develop diversion programs that work best for their communities.
The group is also calling on prosecutors to consider the racial impact of diversion and reconsider the use of prior records as absolute barriers to diversion because communities of color historically have been overpoliced compared to their white neighbors.
And finally, the group is recommending prosecutors decline more cases where appropriate so there is no risk of a conviction for the person charged.
A criminal conviction can have lasting consequences that disrupt a person’s life for years.
According to the American Bar Association, there are more than 22,000 collateral consequences from a criminal conviction that limit everything from a person’s access to work and housing to simply getting an education.
And for people of color, the consequences can be even more severe.
Even minor convictions can also put someone at risk of being arrested again. Recent research out of Suffolk County, Massachusetts found that people charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses were 58 percent less likely to be rearrested if their charges were dismissed, compared to similar people who were convicted of the same crimes.
Simply put, being involved in the criminal justice system can lead to more criminal justice involvement.
This is the case for Kathryn, who’s first encounter with the criminal justice system began with just a simple traffic violation but led to years of problems and thousands of dollars in court-imposed debt.
Roughly 20 years ago, Kathryn was stopped and given a traffic violation. Unable to pay her fine, Kathryn began getting more and more fines imposed, leading to her driver’s license to be suspended for failure to pay.
This meant Kathryn, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, had to constantly risk driving illegally or not drive and potentially miss work and be unable to pay the fines and fees she had already incurred.
“I couldn’t get certain jobs,” she said. “I couldn’t keep a job because I’d get pulled over.”
Kathryn’s struggles went on 15 years until she was entered into Jacksonville’s Keys 2 Drive diversion program.
Like Kathryn, roughly 70 percent of the people in the program, aimed to help people who had their driver’s license suspended, are Black, according to the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators report.
“It took me 15 years to get my license back, but thanks to Keys 2 Drive, I got it back,” Kathryn said.
Josh Vaughn is an award-winning freelance reporter who has covered criminal justice issues in Pennsylvania for the last decade, most recently with the criminal justice journalism website The Appeal. Readers may follow him on Twitter @Sentinel_Vaughn.”