9 Investigates

New Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell talks criminal justice reform, changes already underway in office

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — By the end of the week, the new Orange-Osceola County state attorney will be sworn in.

Worrell was welcomed to the office this week, but had to answer questions about the controversial decision of outgoing State Attorney Aramis Ayala to rescind death penalty notices for three murder cases hours before her term was up.

READ: Outgoing state attorney issues death penalty waivers in 2 high-profile murder cases

Worrell sat down with Channel 9 investigative reporter and anchor Daralene Jones for about 45 minutes to talk about Ayala’s decision, changes she’s already made in the office and the reforms she campaigned on.

Worrell said all of her work will be done with input from the community. She said a community liaison and an advisory committee will help her keep a pulse on what’s important.

“My friends and family would describe me as a fierce advocate for justice,” Worrell said.

READ: ‘All I have now is memories’: Mom wants incoming state attorney to reopen son’s hot car death case

Worrell said she will try to live by that narrative in her new role.

Since she started she’s already shed four staffers, including two investigators who she said didn’t align with her vision. She’s also hired 25 people, including 24 prosecutors, some of whom previously worked in the office.

READ: Candidate to replace State Attorney Aramis Ayala hired for job at office prior to election

“Even though I had to let a few people go, there were many people who left even before that,” Worrell said. “So, there were already a lot of vacancies and it was important to make these hires because as you know dealing with COVID-19 backlog. There are a lot of cases that are going to be handled and handled quickly,  so that we can ensure that justice is served.”

Worrell previously worked in the office, where she led a newly formed conviction integrity unit focused on investigating wrongful conviction claims.

Her most recent work was behind the scenes as chief legal officer of the Reform Alliance, a group founded by national influencers including Jay-Z, Meek Mill and Robert Kraft.

READ: State Attorney Aramis Ayala eliminates Deborah Barra’s position at office after she lost election to fill her seat

Jones asked Worrell how she would define criminal justice reform.

“I’m glad you asked because to some people it’s this scary thing and they see it as, ‘she’s going to open the prison doors, she’s going to let all the criminals out and we’re not going to be safe,’” Worrell said. “And I want people to understand that it doesn’t mean that. Criminal justice reform means that we acknowledge that our system has led to mass incarceration so we have failed policies of the ’80s and ’90s where we started this war on drugs. And what that war on drugs did was land people in prison for decades, some even life, for non-violent drug offenses, many of whom were addicts to drugs because the system didn’t do a really good job of separating addicts form dealers.”

READ: Worrell beats Perry in state attorney race for Orange, Osceola counties

Worrell said her research shows that in the state of Florida, the prison population has increased by 300% since the 1970s.

“The bulk of individuals who are serving sentences are there for non-violent offenses and what that does is trickles down and kind of increases criminalization in our neighborhoods because we separate families,” she said. “We take mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters out of the home, we de-stabilize the economy.”

“Are we looking at a system that will force you to look at pursing fewer cases for certain offenses, and if so, which ones?” Jones asked.

READ: State Attorney Aramis Ayala announces diversion program for certain cases in Orange, Osceola counties

“We have budget cuts in the state of Florida, 6, up to 10% in the state of Florida, that in and of itself is going to make us take a look at the cases we can pursue with the budget that we have,” Worrell said. “But not that we pursue less cases, but how to do deal with those cases. Is prison, as a sentence necessary, to make the community safer? How does the community benefit from a prison or jail situation is there some alternative to incarceration that would be more effective and more impactful?”

9 Investigates reviewed the court administration records and found the trial conviction rate for the office prior to the pandemic was right about 60%. And Worrell said she believes that’s in part a result of how cases are charged.

READ: Here’s where to find the COVID-19 vaccine in your county

“The prescription from my perspective is what are we charging? Is it the appropriate charge for the incident that took place? And I think that’s something for the attorneys to decide when they read the report,” she said. “I think the conviction rate can be manipulated I’m not focused on the conviction rate, I’m focused on how did we achieve justice.”

Worrell officially took over the office on Tuesday, but will hold a swearing in ceremony on Friday at 3 p.m. at Orlando City Hall.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.