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June 28, 2008

Historic new head of Florida courts talking criminal justice reform

How Appealing links here to all the news coverage of the swearing in of Florida's historic new Chief Justice.  Especially interesting among the articles is this local piece headlined, "New Chief Justice Quince becomes first black woman to head branch of state in Florida; She vows to continue push for reform of criminal-justice system."  Here are excerpts:

Chief Justice Peggy Quince, the first black woman to head any branch of Florida government, used her swearing in ceremony to call for a new commission to fight a widespread perception of unequal treatment in the courts. "No one should come out of this court system feeling that they were treated unfairly," Quince said. "You may lose, but you should not feel that you were treated unfairly."

Quince vowed to continue a push by her predecessor to reform a criminal-justice system that spends $250 million a year housing defendants too mentally ill to stand trial. "Our jails and prisons cannot continue to be the psychiatric hospitals that no longer exist," she said.

Intriguingly, at two Southern states (Georgia and Florida) now have female African-American Chief Justices, while the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to have a single female minority ever serve as a Justice.  Here is hoping that the next President, whomever he may be, will give serious thought to this telling reality.

June 28, 2008 at 01:30 PM | Permalink


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We can start with DC Circuit Judge and former California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 28, 2008 3:00:43 PM

Of course, we could simply pick the best qualified for the job and not worry about sex/race characteristics.

Posted by: mike | Jun 28, 2008 9:55:18 PM



Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 28, 2008 10:31:08 PM

Mike: "Of course, we could simply pick the best qualified for the job and not worry about sex/race characteristics."

Mike, you are 100% RIGHT ON with that statement.

The problem comes in when there aren't ANY female Black, qualified or not, on the radar to be considered. I'm very sure you are aware of how Supreme Court justices are spotted and selected to their position.

I heard a republican say somewhere that the reason Obama is so appealing to the educated class is because McCain lacks qualification to be president. That's pretty difficult to believe that a republican can say such a thing about their own. But enough of that. This isn't a tasteless "political" blog.

Posted by: Ange | Jun 29, 2008 4:17:31 PM

In regard to criminal justice reform, it is MUCH needed in ALL areas of criminal justice.

It's a sad day when a recidivist child rapist is put on probation while someone who was found with marijuana for personal use is locked up for years.

Bill, is this you?
"William Otis, JD, is a graduate of Stanford Law School and former Special Counsel to then- president George H.W. Bush. After law school, he worked in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice for seven years before becoming head of the appellate division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. He was also an informal advisor on criminal justice issues to President Bush when he was Governor. For the past three years, he has been Counselor to the Administrator of the DEA, the official capacity in which he will speak next Wednesday." http://blogs.salon.com/0002762/2006/week44.html


What do you think about the much needed criminal justice reform especially increasing the penalty for powder cocaine to that of crack cocaine?

Posted by: Ange | Jun 29, 2008 4:29:38 PM


I'm just an over-the-hill AUSA who has had the good fortune to have held other jobs here and there in the government. The better part of my career was spent in the United States Attorney's Office under administrations of both parties.

As for the crack-powder issue, I believe the two should not be treated equally, because crack is more addictive and far more associated with gang violence. For that reason, the Justice Department, under both Clinton and Bush, resisted efforts to equalize the sentencing structure for crack and powder; President Clinton went so far as to sign legislation blocking an equalizing measure that the Sentencing Commission had proposed. In his signing statement, President Clinton said (this is not a direct quotation, but it's close) that, for crack dealers, the price of doing business would not be going down on his watch.

There is some force, in my view, to the argument that the difference in treatment is excessive. To the extent this is true, there is more than one way to deal with it. We could lower crack sentences -- or we could increase powder sentences.

When I see some evidence that either crack or powder helps people have better lives, I'll think more of the argument that we need to go easier on them. Until then, don't think so.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 29, 2008 5:19:04 PM

Well, it's a true pleasure to have these kinds of discourse with you. You make me think some positions--though at times I play Devil's Advocate.

I'm of the thinking that if one drug is illicit and carry a prison term, than ALL drugs should be treated the same with similar sentences. I don't buy into the medical model of drug abuse.

Aside from the regular radical argument about how people of lower socio-economic status fair with the 100-1 difference in sentence btw crack and cocaine, I would have to say that if anything, no one can be addicted to any substance (coffee, chocolate, beer, alcohol, Coke, blogs (lol), etc...) unless one is predispose on the basis of personality type to become addicted to anything.

I find it odd that our culture is not like that of other nation in terms of illicit drug use. Research states that people tend to age out of drug in the Netherlands--they also have a lower crime rate than we do. I wonder how many people here REALLY age out of drugs. I would like to see the gap closed because that is a contention that promotes racial divisiveness.

Anyhow, I really wish people would learn to entertain themselves in other ways or relieve stress in other ways other than with drugs.

I look forward to learning more from you.

Posted by: Ange | Jun 29, 2008 10:24:11 PM


Posted by: Ange | Jun 29, 2008 10:35:12 PM


"I'm of the thinking that if one drug is illicit and carry a prison term, than ALL drugs should be treated the same with similar sentences. I don't buy into the medical model of drug abuse."

I have to disagree with you there. Sentencing should differentiate among drugs based on the amount of harm they do.

When I was an AUSA in the Eastern District of Virginia, the Park Police would occasionally find a guy or a couple smoking a joint on one of the Potomac River overlooks along the George Washington Parkway. The penalty for that was a $50 ticket. (Which was about the same as the penalty for going 10 mph over the speed limit). This is one of the things that makes me just shake my head when I hear over and over again that small time pot users are filling up the prisons.

However, meth, to give you an example, was treated very differently. I do not recall a case in which we did not seek jail time for that drug.

The reason for this is simple. Marijuana isn't good for you, not one bit, and driving while stoned is really dangerous (to you and others), but meth will destroy you sooner or later.

I paid no attention whatever to the socio-economic status of drug defendants (or any other kind of defendants). The law I was charged with helping to enforce properly did not concern itself with that. It concerned itself with the BEHAVIOR of the defendant, not his IDENTITY. Indeed, since I spent most of my time with appeals, cases came to me as a stack of papers. More often than not I never met the defendant. I was thus poorly positioned to tell you whether I was dealing with a homeless person or some guy with a $2,000,000 house in Georgetown. Nor did I care. Neither wealth nor poverty is a license to break the law. You don't have to be rich to know that drugs are illegal or to stay away from them, and if you ARE rich, you should jolly well know better.

"Anyhow, I really wish people would learn to entertain themselves in other ways or relieve stress in other ways other than with drugs."

With the caveat that, over the long term, drug use does not relieve stress but adds to it, I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 30, 2008 7:07:34 AM

Bill: "I have to disagree with you there. Sentencing should differentiate among drugs based on the amount of harm they do."

That is how it is suppose to be; however, some people, because crack is the drug of choice for the poor, find that it's more addictive because there seems to be more crimes created by the addiction versus powder cocaine where those who use it have more money than those who prefer crack. But at the same time, we don't have the tools necessary to assess criminality in the area of white-collar crime.

Now, if you include harm as in SOCIAL harm--the amount of crime surrounding those who use crack, I understand that. But at the same time if that is said, it can also be said that the poor are criminalized more severely than the rich because of the crimes they engage in. What the heck. It's already said when one looks as visible crime versus white-collar or corporate crimes.

Bill: "The penalty for that was a $50 ticket."

How many tickets do you think that person will get before they are sent to jail or put on probation? And if on probation how many times can they be caught "dirty" and not be sent to jail or prison for a technical violation? Who often is race a factor in who gets the ticket versus who gets sent to jail? Why is it that Blacks are 12-13% of the population yet 70% of them are behind bars for drug related offenses?

Meth is very bad. But at the same time, the FDA has approved ADHD medication that can do the same thing as meth if abused. Weed, isn't as bad as meth or even alcohol, but alcohol is LEGAL. Research shows that people smoke a joint or two and they fall asleep if they smoke too much. We in America don't want to hear about decriminalizing pot even if research shows that alcohol is worse than pot. Too many people are afraid of the upward mobility of those who are able to cultivate marijuana and what it would do to the current status quo. Marijuana is a big criminal enterprise that pays well, especially if the person doesn't get caught or serves as an informant to the police.

Bill, I didn't mean to say that YOU looked at a person's social status, but that the sentencing guidelines established harsher penalties for crack cocaine, which is a poor man's drug, than powder cocaine, the well to do drug or for those who hang their hats farther than they can reach it type of people.

If you feel that I was disrespectful or was accusatory towards you in anyway, you have my most sincere apology. It was never my intention. I am here to learn from you and others, hopefully on occasion give a perspective not much entertain by others as to get some to think, and take back some information to share with others.


Posted by: Ange | Jun 30, 2008 12:05:43 PM


By no means did I take offense at what you were saying. To the contrary, you are one of the politest commenters I've seen. If everyone had an attitude that assumed good faith on the part of their co-commenters -- which certainly seems to be your attitude -- we'd all be better off.

Substantively, I just disagree with you on the race and poverty questions. Statistics show that blacks commit disproportionately more crime than whites. That is just not something a prosecutor can take account of in his day-to-day work. You take the cases as you find them and apply race-neutral criteria to your prosecuting decisions. After that you let the chips fall where they may.

As it happens, meth started out as a white biker drug; you seldom saw black defendants. And meth is punished as harshly as crack.

In immigration cases, you get disproportionate numbers of Latino defendants. That's not because the government has it in for Latios; it's because most of the illegal immigration is from Mexico and Central America.

Not a whole lot we could do about that.

And of course the biggest disparity by far is gender. Men are far more frequently defendants than women, and get charged with the crimes carrying the toughest sentences. This is not because the Department of Justice has it in for men. It's because men commit more crime, and more serious crime, than women, and it's not even close.

The answer is not for prosecutors to embark upon the dangerous and divisive business of checking the numbers to see if we have "enough" of this racial or gender group and "not enough" of this other group. The answer is for people to follow the law, live normal lives, get jobs like the rest of us and quit complaining that what happens to them is everyone's fault but theirs.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 30, 2008 12:49:34 PM

Bill: "Statistics show that blacks commit disproportionately more crime than whites."

Bill, I would say that statistics show us that Blacks are ARRESTED more often than Whites for certain types of crimes. It as been WRONGFULLY INFERRED that Blacks commit more crimes than Whites when in reality, that can NEVER be proven based on the type of stats and sample population we base our research on. There are a number of legal and extra legal factors that go into what cases prosecutors choose to prosecute and race, age, gender, victim characteristics, social economic status, case load, etc form part of the decision process. That a Black defendant gets MORE time than a White person does NOT automatically mean that the prosecutor is discriminating against the Black defendant. There is systemic discrimination in the system and anyone that has worked in the system knows that. The system is designed, purposely or NOT, to affect the poor negatively.

For example, a Black family is not able to come up with the same $5K requested because they are disadvantaged and live low income housing while the White defendant that committed the SAME crime and has the SAME criminal history IS able to come up with the $5K because although he lives in a dilapidated mobile home he is able to borrow against his land doesn't mean that Black guy is MORE criminal than the White guy or that the White guy is LESS criminal than the Black guy.

Study the extra legal factors judges consider before they release someone on their own recognizance. If you don't have a job, you don't get released. If you don't have any skills to have a job you don't get that same opportunity--not that it should be excuse, it's just to make a point.

Arrest record, conviction records, sentencing records, and incarceration records do NOT tell us the whole picture. They also do not tell us that one race is MORE criminal than the next. Look at the crack vs powder cocaine sentencing disparity again.

One should not say one race is more criminal simply because they tend to be overrepresented by the numbers and proportionality.

Statistics tell us that Whites are arrested MORE often for child sexual abuse, rape, crimes against their spouse, parents, paramour...in short, crimes against their intimates/loved ones.

Do we say that Whites are MORE criminal than Blacks in the area of hurting the people closest to them? Do we say, based on statistics, that Whites hate those they should love the most?

Posted by: Ange | Jun 30, 2008 9:32:29 PM

I almost forgot. Bill, thank you for the kind words. I will be leaving the country to the ABC Islands tomorrow. I'll see if I have a chance to find an internet cafe and see what is cooking here.

Take care if I don't correspond with you before I return. :-)

Posted by: Ange | Jun 30, 2008 9:34:31 PM

I don't no much about the legal science of this State or this country but I will ask why doesn't the legal system Judges, Legislators and so on, does not present a direct representation of the society, and you have people who do not want this to let happen no matter how qualified you are, how many Black Judges and White Judges we have in the state of Florida and also Latino and Latino Black Judges "I add black into that because you have white Latinos and black Latino" and jury selection is the worst in the trail trying the killer of Martin Luther King you have half black jury and half white jury unheard of in this country a political stunt to me. but the point is Especially to this Bill Otis charter the legal system is not fair and just because if it was it would give fair representation White society does not understand black society so can you be tried in court by your peers when in fact they aren't your peers

Posted by: Junior, Miami | Jul 6, 2008 10:38:34 AM

Bill, I forgot to mention that when you break the numbers down on crime, one would ask why does a rapist or child molester get less time in jail then someone with a drug charge or non-violent crime the Law is a science the study of society and sociology what crimes do Black do, what crime do white do, what crime do Latinos do. OK now let break down the punishments.Blacks get more time and other do not, black go to jail other? get probation. I heard of a individual who got 13 year in prison for stealing a Computer know how did a legislature come up with those numbers. Now me looking in from the outside this look BAD!!!!! who writing the laws what race are they and know let look at the big picture. WE NEED A MIXED RACIAL AND GENDER LEGAL SYSTEM BECAUSE EVERYONE IS NOT BEING EQUALLY REPRESENTED. But Civil Rights in this Country seem to the Enemy of the State. qualification is need but not exclusion. I'm FOR CHANGE AND IT SEEMS TO ME THAT SOME PEOPLE OUT THERE ARE UPSET OF FLORIDA HAVING A BLACK CHIEF JUSTICE. SAD AND WHERE TRYING TO TELL OTHER COUNTRIES THAT Democracy better for them in the Middle east fix our problems right here at home before we try to sell a system with so many flaws

Posted by: Junior, Miami Iraq Combat VET | Jul 6, 2008 11:00:36 AM

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