GOP state legislatures target progressive prosecutors

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

August 9 started like any other day for Monique Worrell. She was driving to her job as the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit. Then things took a turn.

MONIQUE WORRELL: I received a call from my deputy chief, who started the call by saying, are you OK? And I said, yeah, I’m fine. I’m on my way into the office. And he said, no, I heard that you were being removed.

HUANG: Just then, she says, she gets another call from her chief investigator.

WORRELL: Who, in a very robotic tone, said that he had been asked to read me a notification, and he began reading the notification of my suspension.

HUANG: A suspension basically meant she was fired.

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RON DESANTIS: Refusing to faithfully enforce the laws of Florida puts our communities in danger and victimizes innocent Floridians.

HUANG: And the person who fired her was Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: Effective immediately, I’m appointing Judge Andrew Bain to take over as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit.

HUANG: Now, this was a big deal. State attorney is an elected position in Florida, and Monique Worrell ran in 2020 on a progressive platform. She promised alternatives to prison for first-time and nonviolent offenders to not prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, and it changed the way juvenile cases were handled. And she won big with more than 66% of the vote. That’s why Worrell calls DeSantis’ decision to remove her an attack on democracy.

WORRELL: In a democracy, the people decide who they want to represent them, not the governor. That’s a dictatorship.

HUANG: The thing is, this dynamic is playing out all over the country. From Pennsylvania to Texas to Missouri, conservative state governments have taken steps to undercut locally elected liberal prosecutors. They say they’re too soft on crime. Now, the politics of crime and punishment have been a moving target. Let’s go back to 2018.

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DONALD TRUMP: Now to a very positive note – criminal justice reform.

HUANG: At this point, crime rates had been declining for decades. But at the same time, the U.S. had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. That year, former President Donald Trump signed a criminal justice bill with huge bipartisan support. It was a major overhaul that shortened many sentences and limited the three-strikes penalties that had automatically triggered long prison terms. While that was happening nationally, a wave of progressive prosecutors were sweeping into office, trying to bring down incarceration rates at the local level. And fast-forward to now – the politics have changed again. The murder rate shot up in 2020, making crime a big election issue. And Trump, who signed that big bill reducing sentences five years ago, has now changed his tune. Here he is speaking with Fox News this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

BRET BAIER: You have said you’d be in favor of the death penalty for drug dealers.

TRUMP: Yeah.

BAIER: Still the case?

TRUMP: Yeah. It’s the only way you’re going to stop it.

HUANG: It’s in that context that Ron DeSantis, currently in a primary fight against Donald Trump, started taking on progressive prosecutors in his state. Last year, he suspended the state attorney in Tampa. This month, it was Monique Worrell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: Prosecutors do have a certain amount of discretion about which cases to bring and which not. But what this state attorney has done is abuse that discretion and has effectively nullified certain laws in the state of Florida.

HUANG: When I spoke with Monique Worrell this past week, I asked her about some of the arguments DeSantis made in removing her.

He alleges that your office was dropping or declining to file charges that could have been proven in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. So I’m wondering, what’s your response to that?

WORRELL: That’s false. We never dropped any cases to avoid triggering a minimum mandatory. Prosecutors have long since, prior to me ever thinking of running for this office, had discretion to plea and charge bargain, to find a resolution that was best for the community, that was best for the individual. And sometimes that involves the dropping of charges. Sometimes that involves negotiations that don’t include minimum mandatory sentences. But that wasn’t something that was done as a practice. It was done on a case-by-case basis when it was in the best interest of the community.

HUANG: The governor raised a few specific cases, including one of a 17-year-old who was facing weapons charges but was released and then went on to shoot and kill his pregnant girlfriend. So given what happened in that case, I’m wondering, do you think your office should have done anything differently?

WORRELL: No because what’s very important to understand is that the criminal legal system is made up of several components. The prosecutor’s office is just one. That particular case dealt with a case that was brought to us by the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s department never made an arrest in that case because they did not have enough evidence to do so. In fact, the lead detective sent over the case for our review, saying that they don’t think that they can get beyond stand your ground in that case. So there was nothing for the state attorney’s office to file charges on. And, yes, it’s awful that that same young man ended up later being arrested in a different case involving a homicide. But there’s absolutely nothing that my office could have done differently to stop that from happening.

HUANG: I want to ask you about the platform that you ran on. So back in 2020, you campaigned for the job, and you won on trying to reduce mass incarceration. And DeSantis is now arguing that your policies have made the community less safe. Do you think this is true? Is there a trade-off between lower incarceration rates and lower crime rates?

WORRELL: That’s part of the false narrative that has been pushed by DeSantis and local law enforcement. But the reality is that crime has decreased since I took office, not increased. So there’s no plausible way that my policies could have made the community less safe. What we did is exactly what I said that I would do, is that we would ensure that nonviolent offenders who did not need to be sent to prison to keep the community safe would have an opportunity to be involved in programs that would help them to have a second chance and to become productive members of our community. And I’ve always said that violent individuals who are a danger to our community will go to prison, and they have, many for life sentences.

HUANG: You’ve said that you’re going to continue to run for reelection in 2024. Can I ask why, if DeSantis can just suspend you again?

WORRELL: Because when you are faced with authoritarian practices, you don’t just lay down and take it. I will run and, if the law finds that this is legal, be removed as many times as it takes for us as a society to realize that this is undemocratic and we must not stand for this, and I intend to fight.

HUANG: Monique Worrell is a suspended state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties in Florida. Monique, thank you for joining us.

WORRELL: Thank you so much. And I prefer to be referred to as the duly elected state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties. Although the governor has issued a suspension, it is important for people to know and understand that I am still the duly elected state attorney.

HUANG: And as we’ve mentioned, this backlash against progressive prosecutors isn’t just in Florida. When I spoke about this with Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Policy Project at the University of North Carolina, she told me there are three broad strategies that state authorities are using.

CARISSA BYRNE HESSICK: The first category I like to think of as circumvention, where state officials are trying to have other people exercise the power of prosecutors rather than those people who’ve been elected, especially people who ran on progressive platforms. So we saw that in Tennessee, for example, where if a prosecutor was declining to bring certain types of cases, then the state attorney general could step in. The second category, I think of more in – as sanctions. This is where I would put Ron DeSantis’ decisions to remove two prosecutors in his states. He’s punishing them for the decisions that they have made. We’ve also seen bills introduced to allow people to sue their local prosecutor if they didn’t bring charges in a particular way. And then the last category, which is probably the most dramatic – it’s a takeover. This is what we saw in Mississippi, where the Mississippi state legislature decided to carve out a piece of Jackson, Miss. And instead of having the locally elected prosecutor be in charge of that piece of the city, they’re appointing a prosecutor instead.

HUANG: I wanted to point out that it’s not just exclusively Republican state officials pushing back on liberal prosecutors. You know, for example, in Oakland, Calif., we saw the local NAACP blame district attorney Pamela Price for what they described as an intolerable public safety crisis, and there’s a group seeking to recall her. So what do we make of this sort of force coming out in a state like California? Is some of it motivated by a real concern from citizens?

HESSICK: I mean, I think it is. Not everyone agrees with these policies just because they are a Democrat. So I’m not surprised to see some pushback from community groups whose members generally vote for Democratic candidates. At the same time, progressive prosecutors have been incredibly successful. Like, our research at the Prosecutors and Politics Project shows that progressive candidates win at a much higher rate than candidates more generally. So I think that there are a number of people, especially people who live in communities like Oakland that have a lot of crime, who want people who are going to do something different. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be criticized by other people in your community because they think that your policies aren’t the right way to reduce crime.

HUANG: How can progressive prosecutors address those concerns without going back to the policies of the past decades that led to just a staggering rate of incarceration in the U.S.?

HESSICK: One thing that progressive prosecutors often say is that if you want to reduce crime, you need to look at policies outside of the criminal justice system. You have to address things like poverty, housing segregation. The problem is those things are, to the extent that they’re controlled by the government at all, controlled by people who have other offices. So it’s complicated for the progressive prosecutor to come into office and then, if crime spikes, talk about what they will do to address it because the progressive prosecutor ethos is built on this idea that the criminal justice system is about doing justice. And if you want to reduce crime, you need to think more broadly about what justice really means.

HUANG: Carissa Byrne Hessick is the director of the Prosecutors and Policy Project at the University of North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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