There are some powerful people in Orange County. A single person will decide whether law enforcement officers continue the status quo of arresting youth for marijuana and other minor offenses, detaining immigrants who pose no threat to the public, and continuing the use of excessive force against Black people, or whether they will redirect resources toward ending historic abuses and over policing in communities of color.
Yet another will decide whether your child will be treated as a juvenile when they get into trouble, or whether they will be treated more harshly and sent to adult prison.
That’s a lot of power. The good news is you have more power — you get a say in who makes those decisions. Unfortunately, many people don’t know who these officials are, understand their power in our lives, or feel inclined to vote for them.
They are your local Sheriff and State Attorney — and you have the chance during the Aug. 18 primary election and Nov. 3 general election to elect candidates who will either advance or impede your civil liberties in Orange County.
The ACLU of Florida is nonpartisan. We don’t support or oppose candidates, but we do evaluate whether their policy agendas will work to end discrimination, ensure civil rights and basic freedoms are never impeded. Your everyday life is much more likely to be impacted by the actions of these county officials than decisions made in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.
Everyday thousands of people — approximately 2,300 — sit in an Orange County jail. Most are awaiting trial, meaning that they have not been convicted of anything. Many are being held on misdemeanor charges. In almost all cases, they are in jail not because they pose a danger to the public but because they cannot afford bail.
It is unconstitutional to deprive individuals of their liberty solely because they do not have the means to pay for their freedom. The consequences of pretrial detention are severe — innocent individuals will lose their jobs; they may even lose their kids. And that system costs taxpayers many millions of dollars per year.
Your State Attorney has the power to decide whether to hold people in jail pretrial simply because they are poor and can’t afford to pay bail. And you have the power to choose your State Attorney.
The Orange County Sheriff makes important decisions about how to deal with youth who commit minor offenses, whether to arrest them or use alternatives to arrest that keep them out of the criminal justice system. In the past year, dealing with juvenile first offenders accused of minor crimes, law enforcement agencies in Orange County as a whole arrested 60 percent of them, led by the sheriff’s office, which arrested 64 percent. Compare Orange County’s overall figure with Miami-Dade County, where eligible youths avoided arrest 94 percent of the time. Your vote could have the power to change those numbers.
Officers too often resort to excessive force in interactions with Black and brown people, despite being charged with protecting and serving those communities. The Sheriff can revise and improve use-of-force policies, reject the implementation of federal military weaponry and teach deputies how to effectively interact with people with mental health issues, disabilities, people experiencing homelessness and communities of color.
When local law enforcement does the work of federal immigration agents it loses the confidence of local immigrants. You have the power to choose a Sheriff who would decline to participate in programs that co-opt deputies as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It is imperative that voters in Orange County understand how each of the candidates for these offices plan to rectify unjust policies. With so much at stake, we at the ACLU launched a new voter education initiative and mobilization campaign, ACLU Justice Voter, with the goal of creating a mandate for local elected officials to enact policies that expand civil rights and freedoms for all.
We have sent questionnaires to all of the candidates about their plans for voting rights, immigrants’ rights, and criminal justice reform, and we plan to get that information into the hands of voters.
It’s time to be a Justice Voter, to defend and advance civil liberties for all Floridians.
This post first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.