In a brazen move that reeks of antidemocratic principles and extreme government overreach, on Thursday Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren (D) over a political disagreement regarding what laws Warren should be prosecuting.
The executive order to suspend Warren, Hillsborough County’s elected prosecutor, cited “neglect of duty and incompetence.” The Florida Constitution allows the governor to suspend state officials for reasons of malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.
DeSantis took issue with decisions that Warren, along with prosecutors across the nation, have made to use their prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute abortion cases as well as certain low-level conduct like prostitution and disorderly intoxication. They have also promised to not prosecute doctors who provide gender-affirming health care.
What DeSantis has done sets a dangerous and deeply disturbing precedent: He suspended an elected official for carrying out the reform platform that he ran on. If Tampa-area residents disapprove of Warren’s approach to crime and punishment, they can vote him out of office. But that is a call for the public to make — not the governor.
Chief prosecutors use their discretion every day across the country to ensure that their staff can give proper attention to the huge volume of potential cases for which their offices are responsible. Many have redirected significant staff and investigative resources to double down on cases involving violent crime, instructing staff to spend less time or move away entirely from prosecuting lower-level conduct that doesn’t affect public safety. No government agency has endless resources. Therefore, every effective chief prosecutor knows the importance of not wasting taxpayer dollars and directing their staff toward serious cases that implicate true public safety issues — especially at a time of increases in some violent crimes.
Millions of Americans support these principles. Over the last decade, voters have increasingly elected chief prosecutors who commit to reducing unnecessary incarceration while enhancing community safety. Many of these prosecutors have supported treating incarceration as a last-resort sanction, increasing diversion programs that provide off-ramps from jails and prison, and they have pledged not to prosecute people charged with specific low-level crimes.
Reversing course from decades of punitive prosecution and sentencing policies is rational given the United States holds the title of the world’s number one incarcerator. Today, 1.2 million people are serving sentences in state and federal prisons, and our county jails see over 10 million admissions every year. Four million more people are on probation or parole.
This level of incarceration has massive negative economic and societal consequences. It drives and reinforces deep-seated racial inequity, disproportionately punishing Black and Latino people. It extracts wealth from communities we’ve never invested in by imposing criminal fees and fines on top of lost wages for those with criminal records. And it tears apart families and neighborhoods.
State Attorney Warren understood the devastating consequences that our nation’s system of punitive excess wrought on our communities. To that end, he launched a conviction review unit to prevent, identify, and remedy wrongful convictions. His office worked to improve transparency around decision-making in his office. And he has championed mechanisms that allow judges to waive excessive fines and fees.
The Florida governor’s action is a political stunt meant to punish a duly elected official who recently pledged not to use sparse government resources to criminalize abortion and signed a statement joined by over 70 other prosecutors pledging not to prosecute doctors who provide gender-transition treatments for children.
In announcing Warren’s suspension, DeSantis said, “Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men.” The irony in this statement is clearly lost on DeSantis. By sidelining a prosecutor who was democratically elected to office by the members of his community, DeSantis toppled his government of laws and turned the state of Florida into a government ruled by one man — himself.