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Worrell defends office, says she’s being blamed for broken system

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — State Attorney Monique Worrell defended her office’s track record during a lengthy interview Tuesday, saying she was being blamed for a system that was understaffed, underfunded, and ill-equipped to deal with the problems of today.

For months, Worrell has been asking lawmakers to change the juvenile justice system to allow teens to be held for longer periods of time and up to their 21st birthday. The maximum they can be held, even for the most serious crimes, is three months. On Tuesday, Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis filed a bill for the 2023 session including many of her requests.

Still, Worrell called criticism about her not being willing to prosecute more teenagers as adults misguided.

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“Instead of talking about whether we charge them as a child, or we charge them as an adult, we need to recognize that they are children,” she said. “We need to fix our juvenile justice system so that it can adequately deal with offenses at any level that are in fact committed by children.”

Worrell’s office charges teenagers as adults at rates far below the state average for many crimes, including murder.

She said prosecutors will walk into her office with their recommendations based on a variety of factors, including the child’s history, whether their behavior is escalating, whether they’re a danger to the community, the likelihood their behavior can stop, and how old they are.

Worrell is a longtime advocate of criminal justice reform and has repeatedly called for more resources and focus to be placed on rehabilitating offenders alongside punishing them.

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While she was prohibited from speaking about many specifics regarding Moses’ case, she again said her office handled his crimes appropriately, even though only one took place under her watch.

“No passes given, there have been no breaks given,” she said. “Every single case was thoroughly documented, vetted, researched, and there were no issues with any way that any of these cases were handled.”

Questions have been raised about the circumstances following Moses’ 2021 arrest – but on the actions of deputies, not prosecutors.

Read: Deputy did not test gun found during Moses’ 2021 arrest, sheriff’s office confirms

The attorney pointed to an armed robbery of an Amazon driver in January as an example of why charging teens as adults only delay when they will return to the street to commit another crime. She said one of the two men was convicted of an adult offense when they were a teenager. The robbery was carried out three months after he was released from a six-year sentence.

Finally, she called on lawmakers to raise prosecutors’ pay, as the current starting salary in Florida is $55,000. Worrell said the staff she hires stays for a few months to get experience, then switches to a private law firm for at least double that money.

Last year, Gov. DeSantis vetoed her request to fund a daycare in her office, which she planned to set up to incentivize her staff to remain in their positions. She said as of Tuesday, her office had 38 vacancies.

“I think that the legislature has just not invested in our system in the way that they should,” she said. “I’m hoping that they will hear this cry for help and that they’ll act on it.”

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