Prosecutor Christine Bustamante in Jacksonville, Fl., handled hundreds of cases that sent away black drug offenders for three times as long as whites. In 2015 and 2016 alone, among more than 100 felony drug cases, blacks received sentences that were nearly four times as long on average as those handed down to white offenders. That put her at the top of a list of Duval County prosecutors with the widest racial disparities in sentencing for felony drug crimes, found an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Florida Times-Union.
Academics and judges argue that prosecutors are the most powerful players in the criminal justice system and most to blame for bias. The newspapers set out to measure the influence of other players in the criminal justice system on cases prosecuted by Bustamante. Those players include two powerful judges she appeared before; her former boss, Angela Corey — regarded as one of the nation’s toughest prosecutors, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which heavily polices minority communities. Bustamante, who resigned last year, disputed the newspapers’ analysis and suggested that outside factors — especially decisions made by judges, may have affected her numbers. The question of why black and white defendants are treated differently remains, cutting to the heart of the debate over who’s responsible for racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system.