ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – In her final weeks in office, State Attorney Aramis Ayala is changing the way people are brought to justice in Orange and Osceola counties.
The State Attorney’s Office for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which oversees cases in Orange and Osceola counties, unveiled three new diversion programs Monday.
Ayala outlined the programs in a news conference, saying the initiatives are to provide accountability and prevent injustice. The new programs target those caught driving with a suspended license and combat human trafficking and underage drinking.
The driving while license is suspended program takes effect immediately and will work in conjunction with the Orange County Clerk of Courts.
The program is separated into two levels with efforts to help people get their license back while reducing other administration fees. Level one will be for those with financial means as determined by the courts. Level two will be for those who may not have the financial means to pay outstanding fees immediately.
“(The) pandemic reemphasized the need for this type of program for people trying to stay afloat,” Assistant State Attorney Lisa Gong Guerrero said.
The program will ultimately give those facing a driving with a suspended license charge the opportunity to pay fees in the form of payment plans or partake in a six-month program. Those who complete the program within six months will have their case dismissed.
The State attorney’s office is also working with two University of Central Florida students to dissuade underage drinking.
“We saw a need for more education on minors about dangers for alcohol use,” Gong Guerrero said.
The attorney said the diversion efforts will work in concert with the students who are conducting an underage drinking project as part of the university’s legal studies program.
The underage drinking diversion program aims to educate minors entangled in the criminal justice system who were caught having alcohol or attempting to get alcohol from establishments.
The program will further outline to minors the laws and dangers of consuming alcohol at a young age, according to Gong Guerrero. The assistant state attorney says this will provide some of the community’s youngest members with the resources to make informed decisions and give the state attorney’s office a way to communicate the consequences.
Perpetrators will now be shown a video of the ramifications of drinking alcohol at a young age and be informed of the legal consequences as the state attorney’s office decides each individual case. The program will be formally rolled out in Orange and Osceola counties beginning next week.
Ayala unveiled her final program, saying it is meant to serve a bigger issue that troubles Florida.
“Human trafficking is very real,” she said during the news conference. “Florida plays a significant role in the dangerous and inhumane crime.”
Ayala said the prostitute diversion program is one she wanted to see through before she left office. The pilot initiative aims to help victims of human trafficking avoid prostitution charges and potentially get help.
“There was nothing on education on illegal sex work and trafficking,” said Jenny Rossman, the chief of the sex crimes unit at the state attorney’s office. “A large majority of trafficking victims have been arrested. The goal is to end that cycle.”
Rossman said in 2019, there were close to 120 prostitution offenses that crossed the state attorney’s office. The offenses can be applied to anyone selling commercial sex and selling what could be victims of human trafficking and not know it, according to the attorney.
The diversion program would be available as a pretrial option, with anyone facing a prostitution offense eligible to opt for the alternative.
Rossman said the program was developed with anti-trafficking organizations and will be offered four times a year on a quarterly basis.
The courses would be four hours long and held in person once it is safe to do so. The information would cover the psychology of exploitation and trauma and substance abuse, what is human trafficking, education on human trafficking expungement law, reporting to law enforcement, presentation on treatment programs, STD education and community health resources, among other topics.
Rossman said her unit is going to track the pilot program’s success and will launch in the upcoming year. If proven effective, it will also be rolled out in Polk County.