Jax Defense Attorney: Police Get Lighter Sentences Than Civilians In Northeast Florida

Oct 26, 2020

A Jacksonville defense attorney says Northeast Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit is more lenient when prosecuting crimes if the perpetrator is a police or corrections officer.

Lawyer A. Wellington Barlow said Circuit 4 has improved under State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s leadership, but police are getting off easier.

For example, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police officer was recently sentenced to six years in prison followed by nine years of probation for multiple counts of sexual battery. The average sentence for similar charges is 18 years in prison, according to Barlow.

Another officer who was arrested for three counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, and later arrested for battery while he was out on bond, ended up spending no time in prison. Barlow said this officer should have been facing 2.75 to 15 years in prison.

“Some people say, ‘Well, police officers and correctional officers have no [criminal] record.’ That's true. But here's the other side of the coin: They know better. These are law enforcement officers and correctional officers, so if anybody should know better than to commit a serious crime like this, it’s them,” Barlow said during a virtual press conference on Monday. 

Under Florida law, sentences are determined using a criminal punishment code worksheet, meant to make the sentencing process less emotional and result in similar sentences.

“When you use points equitably for everybody, nine times out of ten the sentences are going to be relatively fair,” Barlow explained.

Those score sheets are required to be turned into the Florida Department of Corrections, but from 2018 to 2019 Jacksonville had the lowest compliance. That improved substantially in 2019 to 2020, but Barlow said it’s still not sufficient.

“The reason this is so important is because the score sheets, the more you turn in, the more of an accurate assessment can be made as to how a jurisdiction is performing,” he said. “If you turn in fewer score sheets it’s less of an opportunity to accurately evaluate how a jurisdiction is doing with respect to who's being punished for what, how often and how fairly.”

As WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union reported in July, 59 JSO employees have been arrested since Sheriff Mike Williams took office, and all but two were able to avoid jail sentences. Since State Attorney Melissa Nelson took over in January of 2017, 26 out of 38 officer arrests her office has handled resulted in charges being dropped, reduced or diverted.

That’s as a report found that Circuit 4, which consists of Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, in 2018 had among the state’s highest rates of state prison incarcerations, when looking at the bulk of offenders who scored in the same mid-level range on their sentencing worksheets. 

And in the 2019 fiscal year, Circuit 4 had the fifth highest rate of state prison incarcerations of all 20 judicial circuits, and Duval County had the third highest rate for all 67 counties, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

WJCT News has requested a response from State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s office. This story will be updated if one is received.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.