A 63-year-old Florida law allows judges to void the convictions of felony offenders. In the first of a four-part series, the Miami Herald says the procedure is called a “withhold of adjudication.” Intended as a one-time break for first-time offenders, it allows people to say they have never been convicted of a crime. The procedure now is used in one third of Florida cases.
The Herald reports that in an “overburdened state criminal justice system, the law has morphed in the past decade into a handy tool to close cases that, in many instances, appears anything but just.” Rapists, child molesters, child abusers, wife beaters, burglars, cocaine traffickers, repeat offenders, even corrupt public officials got the break. Regular lawbreakers avoided convictions as many as five times. “It defies all logic. It’s used to move cases along. It’s handed out for crimes where you shouldn’t get one,” said Sally Heyman, a former state legislator who unsuccessfully tried to tighten the use of withholds.
A Herald computer analysis of nearly 800,000 felony cases from 1993 to 2002 found:
White offenders are more likely to get withholds than blacks charged with the same crime and have similar prior records. As a result, blacks are branded convicts and lose their rights more often than their white counterparts. Without a withhold, offenders lose their right to vote, serve on a jury, own a firearm, hold public office and obtain many student loans. They may find it harder to get a decent-paying job.
Florida courts have nearly decriminalized some felonies for first-time offenders. Almost three out of four thieves had their convictions withheld after a first arrest. Those charged with battery got the break more than half of the time.
Although legislators intended withholds to be a one-time break, the Herald says it has become the gift that keeps on giving. The newspaper found almost 17,000 offenders who received two, three, four – and in a handful of cases – even five withholds. “It seems to take an act of God to get a conviction,” Hialeah police Sgt. Sam Fadel said. “Withholds are a joke. It’s used to move cases along. Guys get it, and they come right back and do it again.”
In thousands of cases, the courts gave the break to child molesters, child pornographers, child abusers, and men who had sex with adolescent girls. For every 10 offenders who walked into a courtroom charged with child abuse, more than half walked out with a withhold, The Herald found. The list includes adults arrested for punching a child and beating two toddlers over the head with an oak plank.
In Monday’s installment, the Herald says that white offenders are nearly 50 percent more likely than blacks to get a “withhold.” White Hispanics are 31 percent more likely than blacks to get a withhold. The disparity has cost thousands of black offenders their civil rights; they can’t be hired for many government jobs, and they can’t apply for some student loans.
The disparity is due partly to the fact that more white offenders can afford private lawyers who get them the break. Even when blacks and whites had the same type of attorney, private or public, the disparity didn’t disappear. An analysis of Miami-Dade County court data from 1999 shows that the disparity dipped from 60 percent to 44 percent when attorney type was taken into account.