Last Thursday, Melba Pearson, the former Florida American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deputy director, finally made good on rumors that had been simmering for months. She officially filed to run against longtime Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. As New Times has noted many times over the years, Rundle has consistently won reelection since she was appointed to replace Janet Reno in 1993 — and has often run unopposed despite the immense power she holds over people's lives and the numerous scandals she's been embroiled in over the years.
Pearson — who worked in Rundle's office for 15 years and previously ran the National Black Prosecutors Association — is likely the strongest challenger of Rundle's career. Pearson has stated repeatedly she wants to scale back many of the harsh prosecutorial tactics left over from the drug-war era. New Times spoke with her last week to fully find out what her platform entails.
New Times: Walk us through the steps and decision-making process you took before deciding to announce your candidacy.
Pearson: This was a real deliberative process for me. Running for office is time-intensive and you're really putting yourself out to the public, and I needed to be sure this was the right time for me and my family and to be sure what I could bring to the people of Miami-Dade County. I wanted to be sure I could do something better, bring changes, and shift the landscape in Miami-Dade County. If I didn't think I could do that, I would never run — I would just go on with my life. [Laughs] I mean, being a public official brings discomfort, but I felt that a change was needed in Miami-Dade County and I could bring something to the table.
In the meantime, so many different groups approached me — victims, citizens, police officers. There was a wide array of people who implored me to run and whom I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with in this process. I just believe it's time for criminal justice reform in the county. We have huge racial disparities. Non-Hispanic black defendants are 2.3 times more likely to face pretrial detention, and black Hispanic defendants are 4.5 times more likely to face pretrial detention. We need to shift priorities toward rehabilitation and away from using the justice system as a blunt instrument. It's proven this doesn't make people safer. We need to lower rates of recidivism. We need to be looking at rehabilitating our youth as opposed to direct-filing them [into adult court]. And we need to be transparent with data. Whether it's the types of plea agreements we're offering or rates of pretrial release, we need to be holding ourselves accountable.
On that note, something you've already spoken about a bit in the past is wanting to wind down war-on-drugs-era policies at the State Attorney's Office. Can you speak a bit about what you believe those issues still are and what you'd specifically change once in office?
For one, I would not charge marijuana possession up to a certain amount. And we need to be looking at the larger amounts and making sure those cases even ought to be charged as well. Having been a prosecutor, I know some cases are classified as amounts for "sale" versus personal use, but we need to be checking if that's appropriate. At the felony level or for cases marked as "sales," you have to get into the facts — if something was a high amount but not packaged for sale, that might be consistent for personal use. I'd want to set a new threshold, what amount of grams to charge, and that number and below would not be prosecuted. For other possession cases [for other types of drugs], I'd also want to review the manner in which we prosecute those cases and make sure it's not a case where people [would be better suited for] drug court to successfully solve their underlying issues.
Likewise, you also brought up some recent racial-disparity data in Miami-Dade County. Can you talk about what you would do to end many of the disparities you just referenced?
I'd end the use of cash bail in conjunction with increasing pretrial services. Years ago, pretrial services actually offered services: You could get job training; you could go to drug rehab; you could address whatever the driver was that got you into the criminal justice system in the first place. There are a lot of great programs out there, and I looked for different offices to work with, and I'm looking to bring those types of programs to Miami-Dade County. As for bail, when you're charged with a crime, you're innocent until proven guilty. But in jail, we're keeping you away from your family and keeping you away from your job. Many of us [are] one paycheck away from disaster, even as doctors or lawyers, so if you think about that multiplied by so much more for people in certain neighborhoods or who have certain challenges in life, to rip them away from their families, that has a ripple effect that destroys communities. Bail reform is one of the things that can keep our communities intact.
Describe how that program might function under your administration.
Under the current system, you pay 10 percent of your bond to get out of jail. For most people in the system, that's unattainable even for a $500 bond if you're making minimum wage or less. We'd be looking at misdemeanors or nonviolent thefts and nonviolent crimes. Obviously, if you have a terrible record, we'd need to look at that and look at the risk to the community. It's something you have to keep in the equation. But people who are not a risk to the community will be released on their own recognizance, and once they're released, they can attend treatment, they can attend theft courts, they can put money in a trust account for restitution. There are different variations on that. Once you're out on bail, you'd also be able to continue working. If there have been some concerns in other states, I can't really speak to that, but if we're making sure people are being productive, we shouldn't have problems with recidivism. It's almost like probation — you report on a monthly basis, and if you're not holding up your end of the bargain, that could be a reason to take you back in. But again, this will be a deliberate approach, and we're looking at different formats. We'll be learning from mistakes in other cities. We'd take the best from other states or see where things went awry and, accordingly, what works in Florida. It's a win-win for everyone. What we don't want is people to feel boxed in or like they have to take a plea just to get out because their family is out there, like, Gotta take this plea, get out, and get back to work. That's a plea of convenience. And that's not justice.
You mentioned taking inspiration from programs or people in other states. Who or where are you looking for inspiration? Are there other prosecutors or candidates who've inspired you?
The first person who comes to mind is Aramis Ayala. She was the first African-American state attorney in the history of Florida. She's done some interesting and solid things on bail reform. So has Andrew Warren in Tampa. In New York and New Jersey, there's been a legislative push on bail issues, and it's possible we could look at tackling this in conjunction with legislators here too. George Gascón in San Francisco has done some interesting things on bail reform and a lot of interesting things around criminal justice reform, the legalization of cannabis, people having their records sealed or expunged, especially if you have something on your record that is presently legal. Plus, I consider several elected state attorneys friends, and they've been helping give me insight as to what's effective and what's not.
Let's discuss something else you've spoken about in the past: keeping elected officials and members of law enforcement accountable. The last time we spoke, you were texting us that you were appalled at the way the current State Attorney's Office handled the case of Jessie Menocal Jr. [a Hialeah police sergeant accused of sexually abusing or assaulting at least four women, including one girl who was 14 at the time. The Miami Herald reported that Rundle's office closed its case into Menocal in 2015 without interviewing three of the four alleged victims.] Can you talk about what changes might be needed to hold cops or elected officials more accountable?
First, I want to repeat that I'm completely horrified about the way that case was handled. You have four victims. The one you've spoken to, you label her as a bipolar runaway and a gang member and therefore say she's not credible. Sure, maybe you didn't think one story was credible, but what happened to the other three victims? How come they were not able to come forward? You may have found them credible. If their stories were all consistent, that case should have been filed, end of story. I've prosecuted these types of cases. I don't know what the driver was — if it was some implicit bias or overwork — but that needs to be corrected.
As for policy changes, since the incumbent was elected, not one police officer has been charged for an on-duty shooting death — not one in 26 years. You had [North Miami SWAT Officer Jonathan] Aledda, who had to go to a retrial, but that was for a nonfatal shooting case. No on-duty deaths have been prosecuted. How, in 26 years, not one? I want to stress that my campaign is not about attacking law enforcement officers. They put their lives at risk to do their job, which is thankless. I know — as a prosecutor, that job is also thankless. But police officers and elected officials have to be held to the same standard as the rest of us. I fully intend to revamp how we handle our public corruption cases and look for better and more effective ways to handle these cases, whether it's to work more collaboratively with the Attorney General's or Inspector General's Office or otherwise. If you do something wrong, if you are bringing harm to our community, I'm going to look for ways to do restorative justice. Cops and elected officials deserve restorative justice too just like the rest of us. But in order to do that, you first need to ensure everyone is being treated equally under the law.
A few months ago, a team of local activists delivered a package of petitions to Rundle's office asking her to create a standalone police brutality prosecution unit. Are you aware of what happened there, and is it something you'd be interested in pursuing?
Yes, I am aware of that, though I don't know if an entire misconduct unit is needed in and of itself. That's just because if you want to do a unit properly, that's three, four, five prosecutors at least working round-the-clock on only that issue. We might instead want to just expand the public corruption unit or work on relocating people. I just want to make sure it's the proper use of resources, and I'd have to look at the numbers and see what makes sense from a data-driven perspective.
You also mentioned wanting to increase transparency at the office a bit ago. What inspired you to include that in your platform here?
When I was at the ACLU, we put out our Unequal Treatment report. [That 2018 document showed Rundle's office prosecutes black and brown defendants at higher rates than whites.] The response to that report from the incumbent, was — what's the word I'm looking for? — lukewarm at best. They sort of asked if the data was accurate and up-to-date enough. To answer that sort of concern, as soon as I'm elected, I'd want to put together a similar report for 2018 through 2020. We could then compare the two to see what the recurring themes are, see what the biggest issues are, and then see what I can do as the state attorney, what is in my purview to directly fix. I'd then release those findings to the public to let the public know and let the electorate know here's what we're working on, here's what stumbling blocks we've run into, whether we're trying to cut down the length of pretrial detention, who's getting plea agreements and who's not. Who's getting sentenced at trial — I mean, that's ultimately up to the judge, but we can still track what sentences our prosecutors are requesting, like if we're for life [in prison] all the time. If people are coming in with the same set of facts but being given different treatment, we have to fix that immediately. Maybe it's a training issue. Maybe it's an assignment issue — not everyone is as passionate at trial work as others. Some people are great at writing appeals. Maybe it's a matter of retraining people, maybe it's reassignment, and hopefully it's not something more dire. I hope it doesn't come to that. Though if somebody is operating as a racist, they do have to go. There will be no cover in my administration for racism.
You just mentioned asking for life in prison and brought up Aramis Ayala [who, as Orlando's top prosecutor, famously stated she would not prosecute death penalty cases]. Where do you stand on capital punishment?
I have tried first-degree murder cases that were eligible for the death penalty. I don't personally believe in the death penalty. But the state attorney must uphold the law, and the death penalty is still the law of the land in Florida, and as the state attorney, I will uphold the law where it's mandated.
We can still talk about how the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. I can think of plenty of cases to show the death penalty is not a deterrent. But what I can do as state attorney is retool the way death-penalty decisions are made. Right now, that decision goes to a small group of people away from the people closest to those cases. I believe it's something that should be placed into the hands of the folks who are going to have to go in front of the jury and argue to take someone's life away. Right now, that decision goes to a small group of people, but I want to look at how that power is centralized and see if we can make the decision more public and closer to the people who do that work.
Something reformers have criticized your opponent for recently is her history of direct-filing children into adult court. What are your thoughts on that practice?
My position at this juncture is that I would only direct-file cases that are mandated by statute, where the law says, by statute, that we have to do this. That would continue. I would generally direct-file only in instances where severe injury has occurred or in extreme circumstances. But in Miami-Dade, I'm disturbed by the numbers — 96 percent of the kids who were direct-filed for nonviolent offenses since 2014 have been black and brown kids. We know white and black kids commit crimes at the same rate. Why are black and brown kids in adult systems? When they're there, they're not getting the types of services they need. Kids' brains are different: They're not fully formed yet. They're not able to make fully formed decisions, and in many cases, there's just no decision-making process at all.
Let me look at the data here: Since 2014, of the 134 juveniles who were accused of nonviolent crimes and sent to adult court, 129 were kids of color. There you have the problem.
You were a prosecutor for 15 years in Rundle's office; then you left for the ACLU. What did you learn about the office, and did your view of it change once you got to look at it from the outside?
During my time at the ACLU, I had the pleasure of interacting with people impacted by the criminal justice system. As a prosecutor, you generally don't get that chance much. I would encourage prosecutors to do that. When you get to know folks who've been on the other side of this, your mind expands. You hear their walks in life, and sometimes it's not that much different from what you've been through. It changes how you approach cases and how you approach people. I always used to say as a prosecutor: Your victim of today might be your defendant of tomorrow, and vice versa. You have to be sensitive of environmental factors and addressing the issues that are driving them into the system. I really had that experience while working on Amendment 4 [the 2018 Florida amendment that restored voting rights to nonviolent former offenders]. I was going to Tallahassee a lot and also meeting with family members and people who'd been incarcerated. It really opened my eyes on a lot of levels.
Why did you leave the State Attorney's Office?
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Well, I always had good interactions with [Rundle]. We were friendly and cordial, along those lines. But eventually, I became president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, and I was seeing a lot of the great work people were doing around the country, and meanwhile, I felt like our office was stuck in the '80s in a lot of ways. So I got to the point where I felt like I couldn't continue at a place where suggestions to move forward or to create change were met with intense resistance. And then I had the privilege of meeting [former Florida ACLU director] Howard Simon and hearing about his journey in the civil rights movement. I had an opportunity to work with somebody who really wanted to work shoulder-to-shoulder with me to help take on a lot of the ills going on in society, and that was something that was incredibly appealing to me.
Please give an elevator pitch to someone who might not be well-versed in criminal justice reform issues. Why should they think it might make society better or safer?
At the end of the day, the incumbent — my opponent — has been in office for 26 years. She has instituted some good programs — diversionary drug court, veterans courts, for example — but there are amazing things that are being done across the country that we could be doing to keep the community safer and to save money for taxpayers too in the long run. From here, I'm going to be meeting voters, hearing their concerns, and I hope I will earn their trust and earn their vote. It's time for change in 2020.
This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.