Four Easy Ways for a New Top Prosecutor to Make Meaningful Change

August 25, 2020

Activists like the Dream Defenders did not expect Harold Pryor to win the Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), Florida State Attorney race, nor was he their pick. But win he did in the August 17 Democratic primary, leaving him a nailed-on favorite to take the job.

While Pryor is very different to outgoing State Attorney Mike Satz in several important ways—he is Black, for one, and less than half Satz’s age, at just 33—he is similar in others, having worked as a low-ranking prosecutor in Satz’s administration.

Pryor’s 2020 campaign platform was uninspiring to criminal justice reformers,in part because people who have made similar promises in the past have proven themselves failures. He promised a Conviction Integrity Unit to vet potential wrongful convictions, to “eliminate adjudications for Misdemeanor Traffic Offenses and other offenses that are remnants of poverty,” and support “problem solving” diversion courts for cases that involve addiction and mental health issues.

CIUs in practice are often political “window dressing” for the typecast win-at-all-costs US prosecutors’ office, and diversion programs like drug courts create as many problems as they purportedly solve, while doing indirect public relations for the perpetuation of the War on Drugs.

A 2005 interview with the local paper when Pryor was still a high school football star shed light on his motivations for entering this field. He said he wanted to “be a lawyer, a prosecutor,” so he could “get the bad people off the streets.”

Pryor has done some positive things during his early career. As head of the TJ Reddick Bar Association, a local Black bar association, he led the charge to remove racist former Governor Napoleon Broward’s statute from the Broward County Courthouse. Yet Pryor was also part of a regime that prosecuted young kids as adults and continued to make drug use a criminal justice concern, rather than one of public health.

It’s plausible, of course, that Pryor could take a different path as top prosecutor from when he was just a cog in the machine. And if he wants to prove himself a real reformer, he will have the power to do so in a few easy ways.

Eliminate Bail for Most Offenses

Cash bail is one of the biggest injustices in America, largely perpetrated on people of color and other marginalized groups. During his campaign, Pryor promisingly tweeted the link to New Florida Majority’s community bail fund initiative.

Pryor did signal elsewhere that he would not support the abolition of bail for violent offenses, but no one expects him to move the ball as far as a more radical prosecutor-politician like San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin.

He should live up to his words, however, by giving a clear mandate to his former-peer line prosecutors that they should not ask for cash bail for nonviolent crimes, and that they will formally answer to him for arbitrary deviations from his new policy.

Decline to Prosecute Crimes Committed by Children

More traditional prosecutors like to elevate legislative action to the level of religious decree. The reality is that Florida law, like that of every US state, provides a tremendous amount of leeway for prosecutors to decide what course of action is best in a given situation.

In places, it’s true that Florida law is barbaric, and Pryor acknowledges this. For example, he tweeted support for a bill that would increase the minimum age for arrests in the stateto 10proclaiming, “For once, great news from our Florida legislature!”

But the true test of Pryor’s bona fides would be whether he would—at his own discretion, and in contrast to Satz’s administration—opt out of prosecutions of young children on principle.

Ally With the New Orlando Prosecutor

2020 has been disappointing for reformers watching Florida’s State Attorney elections, with the major exception of Monique Worrell’s victory in Orlando. However, that victory was essentially one of maintenance, with Worrell replacing Aramis Ayala, herself a reformer who opted to not run again.

Ayala, the first Black State Attorney in Florida history, was obstructed by both racist attacks from the legislature and a lack of support for her reforms, like no longer seeking the death penalty, from other elected State Attorneys.

Things are different now. Out of 20 State Attorneys, two (including Worrell) are Black, and both are reformers, at least in name. Those two represent nearly 4 million Floridiansclose to 20 percent of the state population. That’s a powerful mandate, multiplied given that these people live in some of the wealthier parts of the state.

Pryor should team up with Worrell to expand the pair’s influence. The two of them could run circles around the retrograde Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and create their own, alternative prosecutor association if need be. They could also protect each other from the backlash that will inevitably follow.

Fire the Bad Eggs

Pryor has been a deputy prosecutor in Broward County recently, so he should know which line prosecutors hide evidence, strike the most Black jurors, and mutter the most racist comments in the hallways.

Now that he’s coming to power, it is his democratically ordained right to cut the worst of them from payroll on Day One. This is perhaps the most important thing an elected prosecutor who wants to make changes can do, as line prosecutors don’t get the normal job protections of other government workers and the most conservative ones do anything they can to maintain race and class inequality.


Photo via Pikist/Public Domain

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. He was also a communications specialist for the National Network for Safe Communications, a research center at City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney. He lives in Philadelphia.

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