If Aramis Ayala’s political career ends when she leaves office in 2020 after her first and only term as State Attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, her impact on criminal justice in Central Florida would nonetheless run deep.
Ayala might forever be most known for her losing battle with then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2017, over her failed attempt to ban the death penalty in Orange and Osceola counties. That battle won her widespread admirers and deeply passionate critics. But that attempt at criminal justice reform was not her last. And that failure won’t be her most ingrained legacy.
The first African American ever elected State Attorney in Florida wasted no time in pursuing criminal justice reform. Even after a bruising, exhausting, and expensive legal and political battle with Scott and others through much of 2017, begun just weeks after she was sworn in, she really never let up.
Ayala is the 21st most powerful elected official in Central Florida, according to the debut survey for the Florida Politics Central Florida’s Most Powerful Politicians.
“She’s made history, obviously as the first African American to have that post and I think she’s tried to administer justice fairly,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat who was one of the more outspoken supporters of her during the death penalty controversy. “Obviously, a lot of what people will remember is her stance on the death penalty. And I think her view on that subject warrants merit. I think over time her position will be more accepted.”
Whether or not it is, Ayala went from there to reforms of the circuit’s juvenile justice prosecution programs, bail bonds, case reviews, and drug possession prosecutions. And, she argued, the real reform might have been what she said were her efforts to connect with the greater community.
Ayala first won election in 2016 in a huge upset and in election circumstances largely beyond her control.
The incumbent State Attorney Jeff Ashton had a personal scandal break at the wrong time.
New York progressive politics financier George Soros decided that year to back African Americans running for state attorney positions all over the country and put millions of dollars behind Ayala.
But she also won on a platform promising criminal justice reform.
For Ayala, that meant expanding a world view beyond that of white males who had always controlled the office, addressing such things she describes as “cultural concepts and addressing our traditional comfort zones.” That’s gone into staff cultural training. And it’s gone into outreach and promises made to the broader community.
Regardless of whether her hand-picked successor, Chief Assistant State Attorney Deborah Barra, Ayala critic Ryan Williams, or someone else wins the 2020 election, many of the reforms Ayala is building now will be difficult to reverse. The same may be true with community expectations.
“The goal of what I have done is not to have my signature and ‘Rah-rah Aramis Ayala.’ The goal was to enlighten and educate our community on the power that they really have in this office and to hold anyone who follows me to that standard,” she said.
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