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State Attorney Jack Campbell responds to accusation of racism among Jefferson County prosecutors

A sheet of paper with writing detailing misdemeanor plea offers
Margie Menzel
Former Second Judicial Circuit employee says this sign shows prosecutorial bias in Jefferson County

State Attorney Jack Campbell is mopping up the damage after a former employee called out prosecutors in Jefferson County for discriminating against Hispanics. Campbell says it’s a misunderstanding. But a well-known immigration attorney says the story is “frightening.”

The story came from MacKenzie Hayes, now a prosecutor in Philadelphia, who worked briefly in the Jefferson County office of the Second Judicial Circuit in January. She told the blog Our Tallahassee she was shocked to see a write-up on the wall outlining plea offers for driving without a valid license. “IF EXTENSIVE CRIMINAL HISTORY and/or HISPANIC,” it said, “Adjudicated Guilty + Costs.”

Campbell says the document isn’t a memorandum and doesn’t reflect the policy of his office. He says an entry-level prosecutor was asked to write out the standard pleas in Jefferson County.

“When he wrote that document out, he made a mistake, and instead of saying ‘undocumented immigrants,’ he used the word ‘Hispanics.’ And that was completely inappropriate, insensitive and inconsistent with the policy of the office,” Campbell said. “He has been reprimanded and is deeply remorseful, and has assured me that he did not treat people different based on their racial.”  

Maybe not, says Neil Rambana, senior partner at immigration attorneys Rambana and Ricci. But the damage is still profound.

“You’re talking about profiling a particular group and giving them punishments that far exceed the crime,” he said. “And that kind of punishment can affect them with employment, can affect them with their immigration matter…They could be here going through a process with immigration and now they have been blackballed…”

Rambana says he’s spoken with other attorneys who are equally disturbed.

“They have to make it right. They have to, have to make it right.”

That could mean researching how far back any discrimination might extend, what damage was done, to what extent it can be fixed.

“And it’s the circuit’s responsibility now to do whatever they can publicly to acknowledge that this was wrong,” said Rambana. “I don’t care how it came about; the buck stops with the state attorney’s office to correct it and to give redress to all of those individuals who have been affected.”  

Campbell says he is working to make it right.

“We know that we’re going to be called and be watched on this. So if someone feels that they’ve been disparaged or hurt in any way, they should immediately contact our office and bring it to our attention,” he said. “We will take a good look at it, and if they were inappropriately handled, we will fix it as fast and as powerfully as I can.”

MacKenzie Hayes told Our Tallahassee that the sign didn’t reflect the policy in Leon County, but she wouldn’t be surprised, quote, “if it’s the policy in all the outer-lying counties.”

“And to be clear, if I ever find out that any employee of this office is making decisions based on inappropriate discriminatory, I will separate them immediately,” Campbell said. “Once again, I don’t believe that’s what was happening here. I believe that he made a mistake in his words, not in his heart.”  

As to non-English speakers learning of the opportunity for redress, Campbell says there are advocates working with migrants in the Second Judicial Circuit, and he believes they’ll spread the word.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.