One of the foundations of the American criminal justice system is that the punishment for breaking a law should be proportionate to the severity of the law broken - in other words, the punishment should fit the crime. That’s enshrined in the 8th Amendment to the constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Activists in Florida have argued that the punishment for Deandre Somerville, who overslept and missed jury duty, and was then sentenced to 10 days in jail, 12 months of probation, and 150 hours of community service, didn’t fit the “crime.”
Judge Kastrenakes explained that he over-punished Somerville to teach him a “lesson.” But many in the community aren’t satisfied, pointing to both Kastrenakes’ history - this isn’t the first Black youth he has sentenced to jail for missing jury duty - and the history of over-policing and over-sentencing of Black people in America as to why.
Black people are more likely to be arrested, and when arrested, more likely to be sentenced. And when sentenced, Black people on average receive 19% longer sentences for the same crimes. Critics of Kastrenakes’ desire to “teach [Somerville] a lesson” use these kinds of statistics when protesting his sentencing.
The consequences for missing jury duty are usually minor, though the maximum tends to be 3-5 days in jail and/or a fine up to $1000. Typically, citizens get a few chances before serious punishment, and some judges allow people who have missed jury duty to explain their circumstances before getting charged with “contempt of court.”
With that standard in mind, many cite the consequence of 10 days in jail as too severe. Somerville overslept, and then had to go to work. His absence delayed the trial he was set to serve on as a juror by less than an hour. On top of that, he regularly takes care of his elderly grandfather.
He expressed his thought process at the time: “I'm about to go to jail for 10 days, and that means 10 days I'm not going to be able to help my family and not be able to help my granddad,” he told CNN. The time spent in jail was also traumatizing. "It was a wild, wild ride," he continued. “I saw some things I didn't want to see.”
After public outcry from activists and community members, and Somerville writing an apology letter to the court, Judge Kastrenakes vacated his sentence, saying that he believes Somerville is “rehabilitated.” The judge also praised him, calling him a “thoughtful and respectful young man.” Somerville now has a clear record, and no longer has probation or community service. But the days in jail will stay with him.
He has leaned on his Christian faith to get through the experience, saying that “everything happens for a reason.” Activists hope one of those reasons will be the firing of Kastrenakes and a movement to reform the criminal justice system that hands down severe sentences like Somerville’s.