Criminal Injustice

The ACLU's Jeanne Baker, chair of the Miami chapter's police practices committee, discusses the action plan for the report authored by University of Miami sociologists Nick Petersen and Marisa Omori, at left.
By Maya Bell

The ACLU's Jeanne Baker, chair of the Miami chapter's police practices committee, discusses the action plan for the report authored by University of Miami sociologists Nick Petersen and Marisa Omori, at left.

Criminal Injustice

By Maya Bell
An ACLU report authored by UM sociologists documents racial and ethnic disparities in Miami-Dade County's criminal justice system.

After nearly 20 years practicing criminal law in Miami, Carmen Vizcaino knows she is hardly alone in her belief that the criminal justice system rests on a foundation of bias that ensnares poor people of color into its grip.

“There isn’t a criminal defense attorney in town who, for the price of a beer, wouldn’t sit down and share a ton of stories about the machine that chews up and spits out disadvantaged minorities,” said Vizcaino, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers-Miami. “Until we own the fact that there are implicit biases in the system, and do something about it, nothing is going to change.”

With the goal of turning countless anecdotes about unequal treatment into statistical evidence that could propel such change, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and its Miami chapter on Thursday released an unprecedented study led by two University of Miami sociologists who traced the outcomes of about 200,000 adult arrests in Miami-Dade over a six-year period. They found that black defendants, particularly black Hispanic defendants from poor neighborhoods, are systematically treated more harshly at each stage of the county’s criminal justice system.

Conversely, the researchers found that both white Hispanics and non-Hispanic white defendants are more likely to be filtered out of the system.

The ACLU of Florida plans to use the report to advocate for policies aimed at reducing the disparities. “We don’t want this report to sit on a shelf, gathering dust,” said Jeanne Baker, who chairs the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter’s police practices committee. “We are organizing meetings, not only with directly impacted individuals and community leaders, but also with law enforcement and local elected officials, to seek input, identify solutions, and change practices to create more fairness in how our county’s criminal justice system treats people.”

Authored by Assistant Professors of Sociology Nick Petersen and Marisa Omori, the study, Unequal Treatment: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Miami-Dade Criminal Justice, is the first to examine the role of both race and ethnicity across multiple stages of the criminal justice system and at the individual and neighborhood level. By following the cases of all adults who were arrested and booked into jail between 2010 and 2015, the researchers found that racial and ethnic disparities accumulate as defendants move through key phases of the system—arrest, bond and pretrial detention, charges and case disposition, and sentencing.

They specifically found that:

  • Blacks, regardless of ethnicity, are overrepresented in Miami-Dade’s criminal justice system relative to their share of the population and experience greater rates of arrest, pretrial detention, conviction and incarceration.

  • Black Hispanics are the most overrepresented and experience the most punitive outcomes at nearly every stage of the system. 

  • White non-Hispanics are proportionately represented in the system relative to their population and experience the least punitive outcomes at nearly every step in the system.

  • White Hispanics are the most underrepresented in the system relative to their population share.

  • Defendants arrested in black neighborhoods have higher rates of arrest, pretrial detention, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration, producing punishment “hotspots” in some black neighborhoods.

  • Neighborhood disparities increase across each stage of the criminal justice system, creating a “geographic funnel” for some black, and especially black Hispanic, neighborhoods, producing “collateral consequences” for those communities.

Neither the UM researchers nor the ACLU lawyers who initiated the study were surprised by the finding that non-Hispanic black people, who make up about 17 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, accounted for 38 percent of the arrests made by more than 30 police agencies over the six-year period. Other studies across the nation have consistently shown that blacks are disproportionately impacted by minimum mandatory sentences and other tough-on-crime policies, aggressive policing, and strict drug enforcement. The ACLU study confirms, for example, that drug-related nuisance charges in Miami-Dade are more commonly aimed at blacks, regardless of ethnicity.

But they were surprised to find that black Hispanics, who make up roughly 2 percent of the county’s population, were arrested 4 times more, convicted 5.5 times more and incarcerated 6 times more than their population share.

“It was shocking even to us to see those kind of statistics,” Omori said. “The black Hispanic population in Miami-Dade is relatively small but they overwhelmingly represent such a higher proportion of their population share. That was one of the most surprising things we found, in addition to the converse of that—which is the white Hispanic group being underrepresented.”

While the researchers suggest that black Hispanics are more likely to be targets of police enforcement in white neighborhoods because they seem “out of place” and are subjected to heightened suspicion and police activity, they did not attribute any disparities to individual racism, but rather to a system that accumulates and perpetuates structural bias.

“We’re not out to get anyone, or to show intentional discrimination, but to look at outcomes that might be symptomatic of structural racism or bias,” Petersen said. “We don’t view it as racism in terms of individual actors or decisions, but structural racism that disadvantages certain types of defendants.”

aclu study team
From left are graduate students Brandon Martinez and Rachel Lautenschlager, Assistant Professors Nick Petersen and Marisa Omori, and graduate student Oshea Johnson.

For the study, Petersen, Omori and a team of UM graduate students spent nearly 18 months deciphering, cleansing, merging and coding multiple sets of data that the ACLU of Florida’s Greater Miami chapter began requesting from the Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts in the fall of 2015, in the wake of police shootings of unarmed blacks across the nation that fueled the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time, members of the Miami ACLU chapter’s Police Practices Committee, which was established in 2011 in response to a spate of killings by Hispanic officers in the City of Miami Police Department, were brainstorming how they could document the anecdotes that criminal defense lawyers like Vizcaino, who has no connection to the study, often relayed.

“Criminal defense attorneys think there is a lot of racism built into the system but anecdotes don’t prove it,” said Baker, a lifelong ACLU advocate who briefly served as an assistant federal public defender over her long legal career. “So we decided we needed to do it statistically.”

The committee was, however, not equipped to analyze the initial arrest data they received from the clerk’s office and, after meeting Petersen at a UM legal forum, Baker enlisted his and Omori’s help. Both researchers, who hold Ph.D.s in criminology, law and society and have conducted related studies elsewhere before joining the UM faculty, are interested in research that informs public policy. In exchange for the right to use the data in their own research, they agreed to lead the data analysis, becoming what Baker called “masters of the arcane.”

The biggest challenge, Petersen said, was amassing “the kind of granular data that allows you to follow people through the various stages. Usually you have arrest data, then maybe incarceration data from when defendants are sentenced to prison. But to get those intermediate steps that allow you to track the life course of a criminal case is very difficult.”

Another challenge was identifying the ethnicity of defendants, which unlike race, is not indicated on the arrest affidavits that police use. So the researchers relied on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Hispanic Surname List, an accepted and validated, albeit imperfect, social science research tool for identifying defendants of Hispanic origin.

Petersen and Omori also analyzed a number of other factors, including whether a defendant’s prior offenses, and the severity of those crimes, explained the individual and neighborhood racial and ethnic disparities they found. But after controlling for those factors, they continued to find what they called “stark racial and ethnic disparities.”

Noting that more than half the arrests police made in Miami-Dade during the six-year study period ultimately were not prosecuted, they suggest that aggressive police tactics at the front end of the system inflict collateral damage on those most likely to remain in the system. After all, even in the absence of a conviction, black defendants are more likely to be detained pretrial, for longer periods of time, likely subjecting them to greater financial and personal hardships.

“Even if the charges are dropped, they may have lost wages or jobs and they now have criminal records and have to say on some employment forms that they have been arrested,” Petersen said. “There are tremendous consequences that disproportionately affect black residents of Miami-Dade County.”

“Our expertise is in getting in the weeds, crunching the numbers, and running the statistics,” Omori added. “But it’s hard not to think of the people behind the aggregate numbers. They are being impacted in very real ways.”

Even 15 years after his conviction, Vizcaino still thinks about a young black client of hers who was sentenced to prison for burglary after reaching over a chain-link fence and stealing a soda from a cooler. 

To read the report, which was coauthored by sociology graduate students Roberto Cancio, Oshea Johnson, Rachel Lautenschlager, and Brandon Martinez, visit