DeSantis’s suspension of Orlando-area prosecutor Is counterproductive justice policy

By Rosemary Nidiry and Lauren-Brooke Eisen, August 14, 2023, The Brennan Center for Justice.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has once again taken it upon himself to remove a local elected prosecutor from office. Last week, the target was Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell, who won office in 2020 promising reforms that keep communities safe while reducing unnecessarily harsh tactics. The most recent available data shows that in her jurisdiction in 2021 most crimes dropped.

And yet, the governor alleged she “has been so clearly and fundamentally derelict as to constitute both neglect of duty and incompetence.” Worrell is just the latest in a string of reform-minded prosecutors who have come under attack by Republican officials and legislatures for how they use their prosecutorial discretion.

DeSantis’s removal of Worrell echoes his August 2022 suspension of Tampa-area State Attorney Andrew Warren. The governor took issue with Warren’s pledge not to prosecute certain types of cases, such as those related to abortion and gender-affirming health care. Now, the governor’s claim is that Worrell has opted for leniency in too many cases — for example, by often avoiding mandatory minimum sentences, in the handling of charges involving juveniles or drugs, or in not always seeking the harshest possible charge or sentence.

DeSantis’s actions are grounded in misguided ideas about what actually makes communities safe and demonstrate a wholesale disrespect for democracy. They also reflect a basic misunderstanding of the prosecutor’s role and improperly interfere with prosecutorial discretion and independence.

Notably, a federal court found that the governor’s suspension of Warren violated the Florida Constitution and also in part Warren’s First Amendment rights (though the court lacked the power to reinstate Warren). DeSantis’s decision to remove Worrell, after this judicial reprimand, is even more disturbing.

The American Bar Association’s standard on prosecution explains that prosecutors “should act with integrity and balanced judgement to increase public safety both by pursuing appropriate criminal charges of appropriate severity, and by exercising discretion to not pursue criminal charges in appropriate circumstances.” Responsible prosecutors’ offices base their policies on evidence and data rather than reflexively being as punitive as possible.

Worrell was doing exactly what prosecutors should do, and as she campaigned. She was elected by a wide margin pledging, among other things, to prioritize resources for crime victims, mental health and substance treatment, and diversion programs. She also promised to hold police officers accountable for misconduct. The governor clearly disagrees with her approach, but as a federal judge found in January, political disagreements are not a proper basis for removing a duly elected prosecutor.

DeSantis’s criticisms of Worrell are grounded in outdated and discredited assumptions about what constitutes smart criminal justice policy. In his order removing Worrell, DeSantis accused her of practices that avoid triggering mandatory minimum or long sentences, especially for those under the age of 25. In recent decades, mandatory minimum laws replaced judicial discretion across a wide range of offenses, with the goal of making sure that people stayed in prison for lengthy periods regardless of individual circumstances. Yet research indicates that these “tough on crime” laws drove increases in prison populations without providing significant public safety benefits. The public appears to recognize this, as a recent survey of likely voters found that 69 percent support eliminating mandatory minimums and other laws that require long prison sentences.

The research also supports moving away from long sentences for young people. Studies have found that brain development is not complete until near the age of 25, and so young people’s decision-making abilities aren’t fully mature until then. Additionally, reams of research indicate that people age out of crime, meaning the older someone gets, the less likely they are to be involved in criminal activity. This research has been recognized by the highest court in the land. In a case that emerged from DeSantis’ home state — Graham v. Florida — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The juvenile should not be deprived of the opportunity to achieve maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential.”

DeSantis’s undemocratic removal of Worrell is not an anomaly. It is in fact part of a national movement to remove discretion from elected prosecutors who are responding to their constituents’ demands for more reasoned approaches to combatting crime. These prosecutors are relying on research and evidence to provide offramps from the justice system that will ultimately help our communities thrive while improving public safety.

Just three months ago, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that creates a commission with the power to remove prosecutors based on their use of discretion. This fall, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the state legislature can impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is accused of “misbehavior in office” for using his discretion to implement certain policies such as not pursuing money bail for some minor offenses and declining to prosecute some marijuana and sex work cases. And beginning next month, a Texas law will allow courts to remove elected local district attorneys, who opt not to prosecute certain cases, such as marijuana offenses or abortion, on the basis of “misconduct.”

The attacks on these prosecutors fly in the face of public safety evidence. We know that America’s high levels of incarceration are not making our communities safer, which is why it’s critical that prosecutors have the leeway to use their discretion to make often difficult decisions regarding what cases to prosecute and how to use their resources to reduce crime. One recent research study found that declining to prosecute a nonviolent misdemeanor case can reduce recidivism.

There are far too many cases that end up in the criminal justice system even though it is not the appropriate response. We can better address the drivers of criminal activity through diversion and treatment programs, providing trauma-informed support, helping survivors of crime, and facilitating reentry from prison to reduce recidivism. Today’s level of incarceration has massive societal consequences: it drives and reinforces deep seated racial inequity and disproportionately punishes Black and Latino Americans. And more than 70 million people already have criminal records that subject them to lifelong consequences such as an inability to vote, get jobs, or receive public benefits like subsidized housing.

Elected prosecutors like Monique Worrell are responding to their community’s demands for a more balanced approach to public safety that prevents crime while also reducing the system’s excessive punitiveness. DeSantis’s removal action shows that he doesn’t understand the role of the prosecutor or what the evidence shows works. Unfortunately, such views on public safety are stuck in the failed policies of the past.

Image Credits: Orlando Sentinel/Getty