R.J. Larizza, the incumbent state attorney for the judicial circuit covering Volusia and three other counties, said he wants to continue reducing crime and offering services to help people with mental health or drug-abuse issues.
His challenger, longtime defense attorney Don Dempsey, on the other hand, said there are a number of problems with how Larizza’s goals are implemented.
Chiefly, Dempsey said, he thinks the resources of the State Attorney’s Office should be reallocated, with less energy devoted to getting people long sentences for victimless crimes.
The two will square off in the general election Tuesday, Nov. 3, with the winner holding the office for the next four years. All registered voters in Volusia County can vote in this race.
In separate interviews with The West Volusia Beacon, the candidates outlined their platforms and explained why they are running.
The State Attorney’s Office is responsible for all criminal prosecution in the 7th Circuit. The state attorney administers and manages the agency, including supervising more than 200 employees.
Larizza said during his stint as state attorney, crime has gone down every year throughout the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties in addition to Volusia.
“We have been very successful in my 12 years as state attorney in terms of the crime-reduction rate,” Larizza said. “I want to continue that trend.”
But Dempsey sees the need for reform in the criminal-justice system. For instance, he said, Larizza’s office is too quick to seek lengthy sentences, especially for first offenders and those convicted of minor or victimless crimes, such as drug possession.
“A lot of people are getting lengthy prison sentences,” Dempsey said. “My complaint isn’t with law enforcement, but once a case gets to the State Attorney’s Office.”
Dempsey said prosecutors are pressured to ask for longer sentences because it enhances the State Attorney’s Office’s conviction rate. Prosecutors, also, are encouraged not to drop cases, such as the cases of people who go through Veterans Court, a diversionary program to help veterans accused of relatively minor crimes.
“More people should be cut a break so their lives are not destroyed, especially first-time offenders,” Dempsey said. “But prosecutors won’t do it unless they get approval from their supervisor, and that goes against their stats on conviction rates.”
Because judges are often bound by minimum-mandatory-sentencing laws, Dempsey said, change is up to the State Attorney’s Office.
“Prosecutors, basically, have sole discretion,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey would like to see resources allocated differently; for example, to an economic-crimes bureau to investigate cases where the victims are elderly or where business people rip off their partners.
But Larizza said there is a fraud unit working economic crimes, and he intends to keep it. He also said his agency is training local police departments and works with them to deal with those kinds of crimes.
Larizza made no bones about being tough on hardened criminals, but he does believe in being compassionate when it’s appropriate, he said.
“Sometimes good people make bad decisions, and sometimes the criminal-justice system lets them down,” he said.
Dempsey, though, argues that the State Attorney’s Office could do more to reduce the sentences of some people who have been convicted, especially older inmates who have been locked up for far longer than they should have been.
“The State Attorney’s Office needs some kind of Second Look system to review cases to see if some sentences can be lowered,” Dempsey said.
Another of Larizza’s focuses is on combating domestic violence.
“One out of four murders in the circuit are domestic-related, and they are some of the most difficult cases to prosecute,” he said. “We are working with domestic-abuse councils in every county, and I have been funneling funding out of my budget to help them. I’m trying to get more funding from the state for them.”
Larizza said specific prosecutors are working with the councils to try to reduce incidents of domestic violence, with the ultimate goal of eventually reducing the number of homicides.
Dempsey didn’t address domestic violence in his interview. Rather, he focused on ways to reform the system and be more compassionate, especially with first offenders and those serving lengthy prison sentences.
“It’s not being soft on crime; it’s reprioritizing,” Dempsey said. “Instead of spending resources on victimless crimes such as minor drug offenses, for example, why not spend more time and money on white-collar crimes against business owners and exploitation of the elderly crimes where there are real victims.”
Who is R.J. Larizza?
R.J. Larizza, 62, was first elected state attorney in 2008. Before that, he was in private practice in St. Augustine for six years, after spending six-and-a-half years as a prosecutor in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.
He was a probation-and-parole officer for 13 years before becoming a prosecutor.
Larizza lives in St. Johns County with his wife and two children, and has five grandchildren.
Who is Don Dempsey?
Donald B. Dempsey Jr., 54, was a prosecutor for three years before opening a private law practice in DeLand 27 years ago, specializing in criminal defense.
He is married to County Judge Angela Dempsey, who has been transferred to hear civil cases so there is no conflict with his candidacy. (She will stay on the civil bench if he wins the election, Don Dempsey said.)
Don and Angela Dempsey have a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, and he has a 30-year-old son from a previous relationship. The Dempseys live near DeLand.
The race, and the job
According to Florida law, here’s what the Office of State Attorney is supposed to do: "The State Attorney or designee, shall appear in the circuit and county courts within the Seventh Judicial Circuit, and prosecute or defend, on behalf of the State, all suits, applications, or motions, civil or criminal, in which the State is a party, unless otherwise provided by law. We shall seek justice by fairly and diligently representing the interests of the people of the Seventh Judicial Circuit and the State of Florida."
The state attorney currently supervises 205 employees, including 78 attorneys, who work to accomplish this mission in the four counties of the 7th Judicial Circuit: Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns.
Non-attorney employees of the office include support staff, investigators and victim advocates, for example. The number of employees varies; currently, the State Attorney’s Office is operating under a hiring freeze, due to the unknown budgetary effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The state attorney’s annual salary is $169,554, plus a state benefits package, and the term of office is four years.
The race is a partisan one. Both R.J. Larizza and Don Dempsey are registered Republicans; however, Dempsey has opted to run with no party affiliation, or NPA.
“I think criminal justice should be nonpartisan,” Dempsey said. “I don’t think it should be a partisan issue. Nobody likes crime.”
Had both men chosen to run as Republicans, the election would have been in a partisan primary, open to all voters, on Tuesday, Aug. 18. However, because they are running with different party affiliations, that pushes the vote to the general election Tuesday, Nov. 3.
All of Volusia County is within the 7th Circuit, so all registered voters in Volusia County may cast ballots in the race.