The race for Sixth Judicial Circuit State Attorney, covering Pinellas and Pasco counties, offers voters distinct choices on criminal justice policies and strong reasons to vote this year.
The candidates are the current state attorney, Bruce Bartlett, Republican, a career prosecutor, and Allison Miller, Democrat, a career public defender.
During a candidates forum, held virtually Sept. 20, the two hopefuls answered questions on key issues submitted mostly by civic organizations.
The majority of individuals in jail haven’t been convicted of any crime and are behind bars because they can’t afford to pay their bail amount. Wealthy people get to await trial at home.
Bartlett approved of the current system. “People that have been arrested, that are in jail, they have an opportunity, within a very short period of time, to ask a judge … for a bail that they feel that they can make, and the judge rules on that.”
Miller said too many people are asked to post cash bail and that the law favors releasing defendants accused of low-level, non-violent crimes.
“We almost never follow the law as it applies to bail in this circuit,” she said. “I intend to make sure we do if I am elected.”
Predictive policing in Pasco County
Predictive policing employs a computer algorithm to track individuals who, due to past actions or associations, are considered by law enforcement more likely to commit offenses in the future. People are sometimes tracked for only witnessing a crime or even being a victim.
In schools, law enforcement relies on data about grades, school disciplinary records, past childhood trauma and socioeconomic pressures, along with past arrests, to identify teens they believe are “at risk of falling into a life of crime.” These children, and their families, are often repeatedly contacted by law enforcement and frequently cited for minor civil infractions, in what is billed as a strategy to head off bad behavior. After lawsuits were filed, it was announced that predictive policing in schools had been suspended, although critics say it still goes on. The Pasco Sheriff’s Office and School Board are being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.
Miller opposes the practice. “It is harmful,” she said. “It targets children and it targets them more so if they are members of a minority community.”
Bartlett said he believed the policies criticized by Miller were no longer in effect in Pasco. He said policies of both the Pinellas and Pasco sheriffs departments were up to their respective chiefs. “I don’t tell them how to do their jobs and they don’t tell me how to do mine,” he said.
Juveniles charged as adults
The Sixth Judicial Circuit led Florida last year in the number of youth prosecuted as adults. In each of the 110 cases transferred to the adult system, the decision was made by the state attorney’s office without consulting a judge. Miller committed to requesting a judge review any case she thought necessitated adult consequences. Bartlett agreed to do so as well, representing an important change in policy.
The candidates also debated whether the judicial circuit should institute a “civilian review board” to monitor criminal justice policies. Miller was in favor, while Bartlett was opposed.
On the topic of whether the circuit should create a new “conviction integrity unit,” to ensure that people convicted are, in fact, guilty, Miller was in favor, while Bartlett was, again, opposed.
In both cases, Bartlett defended the performance of his office, while Miller insisted changes were needed.
The state attorney exercises great power, deciding who gets charged with crimes and the sentences sought against them. Voters need to get out and vote for the candidates they feel will align with their values, use limited resources wisely, and serve their communities justly.
For crucial voting information go to aclufljusticevoter.org
Jerry Edwards is a staff attorney focusing on criminal justice reform at the ACLU of Florida. Jessica Throop is a grant writer at the ACLU of Florida, and a resident of Pinellas County.