Lack of funds slows bias study 10-year retrospect project

first_img Lack of funds slows bias study 10-year retrospect project Jan Pudlow Associate EditorLack of funding has stalled a 10-year retrospect project on the 1990-91 report and recommendations of the Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission. Nearly a year ago, members of the original commission and new voices gathered in Tampa to try to answer these questions: What recommendations made in 1990-91 were not implemented and why not? Are there new recommendations that should be made to ensure greater fairness to all who participate in the justice system? But on the way to seeking answers to those ambitious questions, a whole new question has been raised: Is there any funding to continue the effort? “Those reports gained national prominence,” said 10-year retrospect project member Raul Arencibia, of the original headline-grabbing reports that documented racial and ethnic bias in the court system — ranging from the impact of the death penalty on minorities to the dearth of black judges. “They were used for various purposes by other states and other courts in advancing projects to ease racial and ethnic bias. Unfortunately, my understanding is there is no funding available at this point to continue on with a very worthwhile project, which is looking back at those reports and doing an analysis to see how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go.” Arencibia, former chair of the Bar’s Equal Opportunities Section, added: “New areas have come up in the meantime, for example, the DNA issue, the disenfranchisement of felons by taking their voting rights away. Those are additional areas that need to be looked at, in addition to the issues that were raised, such as diversity of The Florida Bar, diversity of the judiciary, and now, with the change of the judicial nominating commissions, to make sure that diversity continues. At this point, the Supreme Court doesn’t have any funding. It’s something that needs to be done and must be done.” Frank Scruggs chaired the original commission that produced a report that sparked national attention, raised consciousness, and prompted landmark legislative action. He also chaired the meeting a year ago to launch the 10-year retrospect project and said at that time that his goal was to “contribute to the public debate in a way that’s profound.” He challenged participants to “be stewards to do grand-scheming. This can’t be done casually or inexpensively. We should not aim too low in our scope.” Since then, Scruggs has resigned his position as chair, declining to give reasons, other than to say: “With the conclusion of the national conference in Orlando, my role on the retrospect project concluded, at my request,” referring to the 13th Annual National Consortium of Task Forces and Commissions on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts held in May. He referred further questions to Debbie Howells, executive assistant at the Office of the State Courts Administrator, who said Scruggs did not give the court a reason for stepping down, but she acknowledged the funding problems. “What we did was on a shoestring budget,” Howells said of the incomplete 10-year retrospect report found online at www.flcourts.org (click on “What’s New”). “The Supreme Court hasn’t decided what is next,” Howells said. “The court intends to keep working on these issues. But it will be a scaled-down version, not a replication of what we did 10 years ago with three full-time staff people.” While there is no separate allocation to work on this project, Howells said, she has suggested that half of the $40,000 allotted in the budget for the Fairness Commission be applied to racial and ethnic projects. Her suggestion has not yet been acted upon. Arencibia, however, said to do the job right would take substantial funding. “We’re talking about in the $100,000 range,” Arencibia said. “I’m not sure another round of public hearings is absolutely necessary, but we do need to do a report with the necessary editorial and writing staff and statistics people to prepare a thorough, concise, and accurate report. I think we need to try to raise the funds to do that.” It is clear from reading the 10-year retrospect report that the lack of funding is at the heart of moving forward: “While much progress has been made in the last 10 years, much remains to be done. State and national research, as well as daily news reports, indicate that racial and ethnic bias in the justice system continues at an unacceptable rate,” according to the report. “It is time to reflect on these issues, take stock of Florida’s successes, and renew the judicial branch’s efforts to ensure the fair and equal treatment of all our citizens, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, or national origin. It is time for the Florida justice system to return to the forefront on these issues and make every effort to move our justice system forward in ensuring full racial and ethnic equity.” Then comes this telling sentence: “To fully assess the implementation status and develop a comprehensive action plan for moving forward, the Florida Supreme Court must secure adequate resources – including both staff and expense monies.” While many recommendations made a decade ago have been implemented, as documented in the report, the status of many other recommendations are unknown, and often these words followed: “Due to limited time and resources, this preliminary assessment was unable to ascertain what improvements, if any, have been made.. . . ” In the meantime, Chief Justice Charles Wells has asked each circuit court to prepare a local action plan for addressing racial and ethnic issues and submit it to the court by the end of the year. September 15, 2001 Associate Editor Regular News Lack of funds slows bias study 10-year retrospect projectlast_img

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