"The Underlying Issues" In Criminal Justice In Miami

Melba Pearson
William Anderson
July 21, 2020

The importance of the prosecutor’s role in the criminal justice system cannot be overstated. That’s why when it comes to local state attorney races like the one taking place this August in Miami-Dade, people must be encouraged to know the facts. The sitting incumbent is State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and she’s being challenged by someone who used to work under her. Melba Pearson is the former ACLU deputy director and she spent 16 years as a Miami-Dade prosecutor herself. According to her website, she’s “committed to reforms that end racial disparities within the criminal justice system and safely reduce Miami-Dade’s jail population.” PushBlack spoke to Melba about the promises of her campaign, her opponent, and what this race means for Black people.

“It’s about connecting with the voters and letting them know the importance of the state attorney’s election,” Melba said. She went on to say “a lot of people skip over the district attorney's race or the state attorney’s race on the ballot. Because again, they don’t understand how it applies to their life. And they’re more focused on presidential, or maybe the governor, or maybe the mayor, or not voting at all.” Melba emphasized how she has been trying to leverage the tools she has at her disposal to connect with voters and engage people. The motivation behind what she’s doing may feel more important now than ever.

Pearson brought up the case of Ahmaud Arbery. His killing was notoriously mishandled by authorities and it put a spotlight on several prosecutors. For Melba, this was a reminder “those are elected positions, so if you want to see a change you need to engage at the ballot box.” She posed a question to voters, “Have you examined what’s happening in your own backyard and what your state attorney or district attorney is doing?” Referencing another instance of anti-Black brutality, this time George Floyd, she asked “Are things being swept under the rug? Are they actually charging police officers and holding them accountable for harming the community or are they, again, looking the other way as people are being brutalized and killed?”

When we asked Melba what would set her apart, she told us about plans to create a civil rights unit within the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s officer. She wants to have multiple prosecutors working on a variety of issues. This includes prosecutors that only work on police shootings and police misconduct cases. She even mentioned working with neighboring offices and exchanging cases so that preexisting relationships prosecutors have with law enforcement won’t influence outcomes. In other words, she wants to pass off some cases to be investigated by prosecutors who don’t know officers in the name of transparency to bring about the most “just matter possible.”

Injustice outlines the experience of the criminal justice system for Black people. People may remember the wild shootout in public Miami police engaged in risking many lives or the case of Darren Rainey. He was a 50-year-old Black man with schizophrenia in prison who was torturously scalded to death in a shower corrections officers used to punish inmates. Melba’s opponent, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, decided not to pursue the officers responsible. Melba told us she would have pursued charges. Now, that case has been central to this race because of what it means for Black people she would have jurisdiction over if elected.

Melba is attempting to speak to Black people, so we asked her what she would do for our community. She spoke about making sure people are connected to the services they need, ban the box, and addressing underlying issues on the front end.  One of her priorities is disrupting and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Overall, she explicitly spoke against “relying on incarceration which we know doesn’t work.” Her opponent, she says, has “not been interested in addressing the racial disparities that exist in this county as laid bare by the ACLU’s Unequal Treatment report where Black Miamians get up to three times worse outcomes in every stage of the criminal justice system as opposed to their white counterparts. And the Black Hispanics get almost six times as worse outcomes.” Pearson said the first thing she’s going to do is address those issues. She told PushBlack she wants to eliminate these disparities, not make them worse or hold them steady.

She’s drawn inspiration from other Black women doing this work like Aramis Ayala and Chicago’s Kim Foxx, also mentioning Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby, who has been heavily invested in and defensive of police. It’s certain that, if implemented, Pearson’s proposed changes could benefit for Black people. While many prosecutors run and get elected on progressive platforms around the country, these races are increasingly relevant with people demanding police accountability. On August 18th, voters will decide if they want what Katherine Fernández Rundle has offered for almost 30 years in office or if they want a new start with Melba Pearson.

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