Unfairness In Court: It’s Not A Black Or White Thing….It’s A Green $$$ Thing






Sam Fields




Imagine you have been arrested for a First Degree felony and are facing thirty years in jail. Out of nowhere the Judicial Genie appears and offers you a choice about how you shall appear in court:

Do you want to be:

  • Poor and White or
  • Rich and Black?

If you have read the recent newspaper stories contending that unfair sentencing in Florida courts is based on race,  you would probably prefer to be poor and White.

I wouldn’t and I will explain why.

As a result of a study by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that included examining 85,000 criminal appeals, the paper concluded that Black people get much harsher sentences than White people even when they have committed identical crimes and have similar rap sheets.

They looked at a number of factors including the race and party registration of the judges. Among the things they found was that White and/or GOP judges were harsher on Blacks than Black and/or Democratic judges.

In their final conclusion they adopted the analysis of Cassia Spohn the Director of the Criminal Justice School at Arizona State University:

“If black offenders with the same sentencing points as white offender consistently receive harsher sentences than white offenders, one can conclude that judges are not using their sentencing discretion in a racially neutral way”.

What the study didn’t do was look at the differences in legal representation that only money can buy. At one end you have a private attorney with a caseload of 25 or 30 cases who might spend a hundred hours on a case.

At the other end is a Public Defender who handles at least 500 cases a year and is likely to have 125 active felony files. Subtract the time spent in trial on a few cases and the average PD client is lucky to get more than a few hours of his lawyer’s time.

With that kind of a caseload it doesn’t matter that some of the best lawyers in Florida are PD’s. After all, even Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax couldn’t pitch every day.

And I speak from my PD experience when things were substantially better.

In the 1980’s I was a Public Defender for the legendary Al Schreiber. As a felony PD attorney we had half the caseload today’s PD’s have. Back then Schreiber and many of the Public Defenders around the state had good relations with governors and legislatures that were controlled by Democrats.  These governors and legislatures were more likely to be sympathetic to the need$$$ of the accused.

When I went into private practice at the “white shoe” (Think rich White clients) law firm Ruden, McClosky, I never carried more than 25 cases including felonies and misdemeanors. In most of my cases I had the resources to hire paralegals, investigators and expert witnesses who could give me the ammunition necessary for trial and a better deal. Money was especially important in cases where the defendant or his parents dangled a check for restitution. Often that put the victim on my side in encouraging the prosecutor to go below the sentencing guidelines.

In drug cases my client had insurance or money to go the best rehabilitation facilities.  Therapists testified to the court about how my client recovered from his addiction and did not need jail.


Money Makes The Difference


It was not a black or white thing…it was a “green” thing.

Take the case of Donté Stallworth, a Black man arrested in 2012 for DUI Manslaughter in Miami Beach. Under Florida Sentencing Guidelines, he was looking at a 14-15 year statutory minimum!

He got 30 days!



Donté Stallworth


And while the prosecutor attributed the lenient sentence to his cooperation with law enforcement that was hardly the whole story. In case you don’t recognize the name he was a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns. He was driving his Bentley drunk and speeding when he killed a pedestrian, a crane operator on his way home from work.

Sure, owning up to his crime was good. Hiring the best lawyers in town and offering a multimillion dollar check to the victim’s family was even better.

Does anyone think O.J Simpson would have walked on a double homicide if he was O.J. Jones and represented by an overworked/underpaid Public Defender?

Is race ever a factor in the criminal justice system?  Sure, but these days it’s far less important than being rich or poor.

But come on folks, doesn’t that apply to almost everything? Along with the legal system, it is way better to be rich than poor if you need healthcare or want an education. Hell, it’s better to be rich when getting a table at Joe’s Stone Crabs.

Now, only a fool would deny that poverty rates are race related. Black people earn 60% of what Whites earn. A recent study determined that White net worth is 13 times that of Black people!

You can quickly see how this translates into Black people, who are more likely to be poor, getting the short end of the deal in court.

It’s critical to understand this so we do not assume that discrimination in the courts is just some Political Correctness problem.  It is not curable by sensitivity training for cops, prosecutors and judges.

The problems and the solutions for achieving “equal justice under law” are far, far deeper.


(Sam Fields is a veteran criminal defense attorney based in Plantation, Florida.)


6 Responses to “Unfairness In Court: It’s Not A Black Or White Thing….It’s A Green $$$ Thing”

  1. Cracker says:

    Some old white guy telling us how it is! What a load

  2. NW Broward MODC says:

    “It’s critical to understand this so we do not assume that discrimination in the courts is just some Political Correctness problem. It is not curable by sensitivity training for cops, prosecutors and judges.”

    Yes, this is absolutely true. It IS so much deeper. Recommendations for training seem to be the catchall solution for every social issue- and the quick fix for disciplinary problems in the workplace. Have a looksy at the disciplinary actions for educators in FL. Does that look like corrective action ? Comical and sickening at the same time.

    To your point, yes, let’s always strive for fairness and objectivity by continuously examining our own biases. It’s ridiculous to suggest that routine and dreaded workplace training would cause an individual to change his or her core beliefs to the extent that it would affect discretionary behavior,judgement and outcome.

  3. City Activist Robert Walsh says:

    Money talks. However, if you do get a public defender and they do a poor job representing you then u have a right for a new trial. Best bet i tell people if you are guilty(99%) of the time then arrange for a plea deal. This hole notion that Blacks etc do more time. One solution is don’t commit more crimes. This whole notion that judges discriminate i;d say is an unfair statement. One thing that must be addressed is the prison system. They need to have more programs and trades services provided. Biggest problem is for Blacks, Whites etc. is the lack of jobs. More jobs less crime…..Boy Buddy u really like this Mr.Fields…

  4. Ruden (Barnett) McClosky alumnus says:

    Sam, You misspelled Don McClosky’s name as McCloskey. Come on Sam. Don McClosky was a great guy. Least you can do is correctly spell his name!


    I agree with you that McClosky was a great guy. I was a member of the media for much of the time that Don McClosky was the go-to lobbyist in Broward. He understood the media’s role in public debate and was one of the rare lobbyists who never lied…to me or any public official I knew.

    I surely know how to spell his name. I should have spotted Sam’s mistake and fixed it. In my defense, Sam is a very, very heavy lift for an editor. His raw copy takes a great deal of massaging.

  5. rightwing says:

    nothing new here. always about the $$$$$but of course its all the repubs fault. guess sam the snowflake still in mourning.deal is, if you can afford a private atty, chances are you will get a better deal. btw, wonder how good everyones memory will be when the tephford trial gets underway, close to 11 years later.sadly most can’t afford a private attyfrom personal experience its the way to go.

  6. Prosecutor says:

    While I never liked Sam Fields as a defense attorney or as a person in general, I absolutely agree with this article. I was actually kind of surprised that the study done by the Herald-Tribune never mentioned financial resources. It’s not race but money that determines a person’s ultimate sentence. My PDs are great attorneys but they are severely overworked and can’t work up cases like they would be able to in private practice. Money talks.