The SAO/PDO Debates were held last night at the African-American Library. When the video becomes available, we will post. In the meantime, here are the questions that were posed to all announced candidates except Gordon Weekes, who previously cancelled his appearance, and David Cannady, who had to go to hospital with his wife, who is expecting …
SAO QUESTIONS (read in different order)
1.) Minorities have long been over-represented in the criminal justice system, and there is a documented disparity in sentencing of minorities. This is evident not only in scholarship and statistics nationwide, but also on display on any given day in any felony courtroom in Broward County. Have you studied this phenomenon, how do you explain it, and how will you address it as State Attorney?
2.) The Broward County State Attorney’s Office recently created a Conviction Review Unit to ensure the integrity of its convictions. As a recent Sun Sentinel editorial noted, “In Florida, Broward holds the dubious record for convicting people later found innocent.” While the review unit is a constructive first step, other media coverage has noted that the unit looks to the past but not the future, failing to prioritize the goal of avoiding wrongful convictions in the first place. What will you do as State Attorney to make sure the unit has integrity looking both backwards and forwards, and if elected, will you issue the first formal public apology on behalf of the State Attorney’s Office to all of the known wrongfully convicted individuals and their families, demonstrating this unit is more than just public relations?
3.) The State Attorney’s Office has been under the same leadership for 44 years. This brings about a remarkable level of consistency and stability. But it also embeds a culture in which things are done a certain way, decisions are made by a certain process, and the people in positions of relative authority have made a career-long practice of adhering to that process. If, as State Attorney, you intend to implement criminal justice reforms in any significant way, can you do that while leaving the same people in charge of the same duties, particularly in the senior leadership roles? How will you lead the process of changing an office that has not seen this kind of overhaul since the final days of the Ford Administration?
4.) Retention is a significant issue for attorneys in the public sector, both for prosecutors and in the public defender’s office. Leaving aside the issue of salary, which we will address in a separate question, what will you do to persuade talented lawyers to not only join your office, but to remain there long past the time they are trained and highly effective prosecutors? How will you address morale concerns, and ensure there are significant advancement opportunities throughout your tenure, particularly if you stay in office for numerous terms?
5.) There is a perception that Broward’s current diversion programs are too restrictive, with too many impediments to entry, including an onerous written application process for felony. For example, unlike our neighboring jurisdictions to the north and south, we require defendants to sign a statement of guilt. There also is a lack of consistency between the misdemeanor and felony programs in Broward. As State Attorney, will you address these issues, and will you implement the first ever 1st time DUI Diversion program similar to the programs long in place in Palm Beach, Miami, and in many other Florida jurisdictions?
6.) In Miami-Dade, police shootings are reviewed by a committee of senior prosecutors and a detailed memo is authored explaining rationale for or against criminal charges. In Broward, the SAO takes the cases to the grand jury, which are, of course, secret hearings. How, if at all, would you change the mechanism on how the SAO office decides on criminal charges in police shootings or use of force cases?
7.) When the State Attorney in Orlando announced unilaterally that she would no longer seek the death penalty in her jurisdiction, her office lost funding and she lost jurisdiction over homicide cases. We are in a jurisdiction where the death penalty is less popular than elsewhere in the state. What are your thoughts on how The Orlando State Attorney handled that policy decision, and as State Attorney, what factors will you take into consideration to ensure the death penalty is applied fairly and evenly?
8.) Broward tries fewer felony cases than Orlando and Miami-Dade but has a lower conviction rate; in fact, ours is the lowest conviction rate after trial in the state of Florida, according to the most recent statistics from the Office of the State Courts Administrator. There is a perception that we aggressively overcharge crimes and fail to independently investigate any but the most serious charges before filing a case. Are we giving our prosecutors the tools to assess when they have a winning case and the discretion to resolve less serious cases so they can focus their attention on the most serious offenders? Do you believe case filing is in need of reform, and how would you do so? Will you require police officer witnesses to be personally interviewed before a case is filed?
9.) We asked earlier about changing the office’s culture after decades under the same leadership. A significant factor moving forward would be reorganization, which opens the opportunity to evaluate the salaries of prosecutors. The State Attorney’s Office already attempted to deal with the issue of compression, but how will you continue to make sure veteran lawyers are compensated fairly in comparison to newer attorneys. Can you find the money by reconsidering the amount of support staff you need to run the office, given the technological savvy of the new generation of lawyers. Can you propose any other ways to improve the salaries of staff attorneys?
PDO QUESTIONS (read in different order and not necessarily verbatim)
1.) For a longtime, many assistant public defenders have griped that chiefs assistants don’t carry caseloads. That leaves many of the younger PDs with a crushing caseload, and without an experienced hand to lean on in the courtrooms. If you’re elected, will the PD’s office stay organized as is? If there’s a reorganization, will you move to make sure the assistant chiefs carry a caseload?
2.) Florida raised the starting salary for PDs to $50,000 a year. That’s a great step in the right direction, but unfortunately, that creates so-called compression, where PDs who have been working for many years will be suddenly making less or the same as new hires. The Broward State Attorney’s has already given some raises to existing lawyers. How will you address this issue if elected Public Defender
3.) When Parkland shooting defendant Nikolas Cruz was arrested, the Broward Public Defender’s Office immediately admitted he would plead guilty if the state waived the death penalty. Do you agree with this approach? The office handles numerous cases in which guilt is barely in question, but conceding guilt at the outset has not been a tactic, generally speaking. Can you all-but-concede guilt and still effectively represent someone whose constitutional rights, freedoms and very lives are at stake?
4.) Would you consider securing video link ups to the jail.
5.) There’s a perception that there’s a strained relationship between the Public Defender’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office, the Judiciary and even the Clerks. Is that perception wrong? And how will you go about improving those relationships? How closely should all these agencies be working together, given the built-in adversarial roles?
6.) Whether it was writing forceful letters to the State Attorney or doing media interviews, Howard Finklestein was always a high-profile voice for criminal justice reform and protecting the rights of poor defendants, and defendants of color. Will you continue to be a voice for the downtrodden, and how will you go about doing that, to fill the void that will be left after Finkelstein’s retirement?