DeSantis-appointed state attorney cancels diversion programs, nixes policy following Worrell’s ouster

In his first morning as state attorney, Andrew Bain made immediate and sweeping changes: He fired two executive staff members, canceled the office’s catch-and-release policy and discontinued the office’s diversion programs while he “evaluate[s] their effectiveness.”

The actions by Bain, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the Orange County judicial bench in 2020, represent a sharp departure from Monique Worrell, the elected state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties who DeSantis ousted from office Wednesday. Bain’s actions also caused concern for local defense attorneys whose clients have gone through the programs.

“… [E]ffective immediately, I am rescinding the catch and release policy that has been in place for too long,” Bain wrote in an email Wednesday morning to State Attorney’s Office staff obtained by the Orlando Sentinel through a public records request. “We must return the principle of prosecutorial discretion, one that relies on a thorough analysis of each case’s facts and the laws of Florida.”

The catch-and-release policy allowed people awaiting a hearing in immigration court to be released from custody.

Diversion programs were central to Worrell’s policy platform, both during her initial campaign in 2020 and while she was the top prosecutor in the Ninth Judicial Circuit.

One of her major efforts in office was the expansion of diversion programs to connect those arrested with low-level charges to services that address the root causes of crimes, she has said. The same programs also seek to avoid penalizing those accused of non-violent crimes with a criminal record that may stop them from being able to find work or qualify for housing.

The diversion programs, some of which preceded Worrell, are mostly eligible to those accused of non-violent, low-level crimes including driving with a suspended license, resisting an officer without violence and underage drinking. Worrell also had in place a pre-trial diversion program for veterans, juveniles and a multi-level program for drug users.

In addition to eliminating the diversion programs, Bain’s decision has thrown defendants who were in the various programs when he was appointed Wednesday back on the pre-trial docket, according to Roger Weeden, a longtime defense attorney.

It’s unclear how many people were involved in these programs when they were canceled. The State Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Weeden is representing a man who was arrested on a felony possession of cannabis charge. The man paid his fees, completed a required substance abuse class and only had to complete fours of community service. If he had finished the hours and had a status hearing before Wednesday morning, he would not be prosecuted since he completed the program.

On Thursday, however, the judge put him back on the trial docket since the program has been aborted.

“He was three-quarters of the way through,” Weeden said, adding that under Worrell the programs were offered to every person who qualified.

Weeden said Bain’s decision will “further crowd the pre-trial dockets” that have still not gotten over the disruption and backlog caused by the pandemic.

Attorney Camara Williams told Channel 9 that he supported Bain during his campaign for judge, but found Bain’s suspension of the diversion programs “despicable.”

“These programs affect Black and brown communities, specifically, poor Black and brown communities,” he said the news station. “People who have made improper decisions with their lives, but they understand that [they] want a pathway to do the right thing. Now what do they do?”

Bain was also rebuked by the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which said the elimination of diversion programs will bog down the judicial system.

“Offers to resolve cases are already being revoked, causing further backup in our already overloaded criminal courts,” the organization said in a statement.

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The state attorney’s veteran programs, which was offered to former U.S. Military personnel who’ve been accused of certain criminal offenses, included evaluation and treatment for mental health and substance abuse as well as job skill development.

The pre-trial drug program — introduced in 2019, two years before Worrell took office — was organized into three tiers.

The first tier was eligible for people accused of possessing a misdemeanor amount of cannabis or drug paraphernalia; level two was for people with no or minor criminal history charged with non-violent low-level felonies; the third tier was for people suffering from drug addiction and accused of some third and second-degree felonies, excluding those involving a weapon, domestic violence or sexual assault.

Those in the third tier were placed in the court-operated drug court.

When people failed the program, they would be moved up to the next tier. If people were rearrested or failed to complete level three, they would be removed and prosecuted accordingly, according to the policy.

According to the State Attorney’s Office website, these programs were intended to relieve overburdened courts so they can handle more serious cases; increase the chances of a better outcome than the involvement with a traditional court system allows; and offer less-serious offenders an opportunity to avoid prosecution by participating and completing a program.

The court-operated diversion programs are still in place, including drug court, mental health court and veterans court, as well as juvenile diversion programs like teen court and neighborhood restorative justice, said Karen Levey, a spokeswoman for the Ninth Circuit, in an email.

“We are assessing any potential impact and will continue monitoring case filings and case processing to quantify any impact on the courts,” said Levey about the effect of the leadership change on court proceedings, which were paused for several hours Wednesday morning.

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In a Zoom conference held Wednesday night, Worrell said the programs she championed gave people an opportunity to right a wrong. Minors, for example, won’t get stuck with a mug shot that would follow them for the rest of their lives, she said.

“I always said I was going to reduce mass incarceration in our community,” Worrell said. “That doesn’t mean no one went to prison. Many people went to prison because those people had proved to be a danger to our community.”

Worrell criticized her successor’s decision to end the diversion programs, claiming it will impact communities of color.

“It’s not about giving better plea deals to Black and brown people, it’s about giving plea offers to everyone and by doing that Black and brown people will benefit because Black and brown people were those who always suffered at the hands of individuals who were not giving justly offers to everyone,” she said.

Along with the canceling of such programs, the two deputy chief assistants on Worrell’s executive team were fired Wednesday morning.

The new chief assistant will be Ryan Williams, Worrell said. Williams ran unsuccessfully against Worrell in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Williams previously worked at the State Attorney’s Office, including under Worrell’s predecessor, Aramis Ayala. But Williams left the office for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, where he prosecuted murder cases that Scott, as governor, reassigned from Ayala’s office due to her opposition to pursuing the death penalty.

When asked what she makes of Williams being immediately brought in, she said, “I think it speaks for itself.”

“Interestingly, it’s my understanding that the person who’s taking place as number two, is one of the individuals who lost to me in an election,” Worrell said at a press conference two hours after her suspension was announced. “You see how that works? You lose an election and then you can just come back.”

On Wednesday, about an hour after the announcement of Worrell’s suspension, Williams sent an email to staff informing them that all assistant state attorneys would sign oaths and will be sworn in by the new state attorney, according to records obtained by the Sentinel.

“It is my great hope that every one of you in our agency, all here trying to make a difference in your community, will move forward with us in our effort to ensure just results in the courtroom and help keep our community safe,” Williams wrote. “More than anyone, you all know there is a great deal of work to do to make this office the place it can and must be for the citizens of Orange and Osceola County.”

Williams added that there will be additional meetings and communications and asked for patience as “we evaluate each part of the office to determine what, if anything, must be addressed for improvement.”

DeSantis contended that Worrell’s political agenda interfered with her role as the state attorney, accusing her of maintaining policies or practices that allowed accused criminals to evade prosecution, improperly enforcing minimum mandatory sentences for gun and drug crimes, allowing juveniles to avoid incarceration and limiting charges for child pornography.

Worrell said she will fight her suspension in court and plans to continue her reelection campaign.

Amanda Rabines of the Sentinel staff contributed.

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