Pinellas-Pasco state attorney draws first challenger in decades

Allison Miller, a longtime assistant public defender, filed to run as a Democrat in the November 2022 special election. The last time voters had a choice for state attorney was in 1992.
Pinellas-Pasco assistant public defender Allison Miller announced Thursday her run for state attorney. Miller is running as a Democrat for an office that was led by the late Bernie McCabe for almost 30 years. After McCabe's death in January, his long-time chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, took over the job.
Pinellas-Pasco assistant public defender Allison Miller announced Thursday her run for state attorney. Miller is running as a Democrat for an office that was led by the late Bernie McCabe for almost 30 years. After McCabe's death in January, his long-time chief assistant, Bruce Bartlett, took over the job. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 3, 2021|Updated June 3, 2021

Pinellas and Pasco county voters will have a choice for state attorney for the first time in 30 years.

Allison Miller, a longtime Pinellas-Pasco public defender, filed Thursday to run as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Bruce Bartlett for the top prosecutor job. She told the Tampa Bay Times she is running to bring reform to the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The election is on Nov. 8, 2022. Bartlett, 66, filed to run in March. He took over the office in January after his old boss, longtime State Attorney Bernie McCabe, died Jan. 1.

If elected, Miller, 38, said she plans to reduce violent crime and recidivism through broader use of arrest diversion programs; stop seeking cash bail for defendants accused of low-level crimes; cease charging children as adults except in extreme cases; and establish a civil rights division to track racial disparities and investigate claims of innocence.

“This is a special election where for the first time in decades the people of Pasco and Pinellas counties get to decide who will be at the helm of the criminal justice system,” she said in an interview. “And really the options are: More of the same, which I contend isn’t working great, or we could try something different to improve upon it.”

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. [ Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office ]

In response to Miller’s announcement, Bartlett said in a statement that he is “focused on continuing the great work of the State Attorney’s office.” He added that he is looking forward “to the campaign ahead to discuss and share with the voters the success of our office for the community and its unwavering commitment to upholding the rule of law, seeking justice for victims, and standing up for public safety.”

Also on Thursday, Miller resigned from her job of 12 years at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender’s Office. She most recently worked as the Pasco chief of staff and the capital case coordinator, working on defense teams for high-profile accused killers including Shelby Nealy, who is accused of killing four people, and Javarick Henderson Jr., who at 13 was charged as an adult for the murder of his grandmother. Miller will continue to consult on death penalty cases with the Pinellas law firm Ripley Whisenhunt.

Miller’s announcement comes amid a national wave of criminal justice reform efforts targeting incumbent prosecutors. The movement already swept through Hillsborough County in 2016 when Democratic federal prosecutor Andrew Warren ousted a powerful Republican incumbent once thought invincible.

It also comes at a pivotal time in the history of the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, which decides whether and how aggressively to pursue criminal charges against someone. The race hasn’t appeared on the ballot since 1992, when McCabe faced an opponent in the Republican Primary. Bartlett said he largely plans to continue his old boss’s legacy.

Related: Will voters finally get a choice in Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor race?

That timing is part of why Miller is running now.

“I wouldn’t undertake a political campaign of this size if I didn’t want to be state attorney,” Miller said. “I don’t know that Mr. McCabe was a beatable incumbent.”

Miller said she wants to change up an office she feels hasn’t kept up with a growing consensus that the criminal justice system in its current form criminalizes the poor and people of color and puts too much of an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation.

She wants to create more flexibility in the circuit’s pre-trial intervention programs to better tailor punishment to each participant to ensure it’s realistic for them to complete the program. She also wouldn’t seek cash bail for defendants facing misdemeanors and low-level felonies, unless they had repeat driving under the influence or domestic violence convictions.

Miller feels passionately that children should not be charged as adults, which in Florida state attorneys have the sole discretion to pursue. She plans to avoid the practice when kids are facing non-violent charges.

“They will be treated as children and hopefully rehabilitated, which is the intention of the juvenile justice system,” she said.

The civil rights division she wants to start will include a conviction integrity unit to investigate claims of innocence, similar to one that Warren brought to the Hillsborough office that has so far vacated 19 convictions, including one of a man who was on death row.

Related: In Tampa, conviction review petitions tell tales of innocence and injustice

One issue that’s sure to come up is Miller’s stance on the death penalty, which she has previously sought to reform. While she’s morally opposed to the ultimate punishment, she said she will follow state law and seek it for the worst of the worst cases.

Miller was born and raised in the Orlando area and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2008. She lives in St. Petersburg with her husband, who works as a law clerk for the Second District Court of Appeal, and their young daughter.

For most of her career, she worked under another legal giant: Bob Dillinger, the circuit’s chief public defender from 1996 until he retired in December. In an interview Thursday, Dillinger said he liked Miller as an employee but that he feels Bartlett is best equipped to continue leading the State Attorney’s Office.

“He’s making progressive changes, but he’s still protecting public safety,” Dillinger said. He pointed out that Bartlett gave all his assistant prosecutors email addresses — a move McCabe was long opposed to — and this month started a DUI arrest diversion program.

Locally, there’s at least some appetite for criminal justice reform, based on last summer’s protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

Even so, Miller’s path to election will likely be a steep one. Incumbents are notoriously hard to beat. Bartlett has already raised more than $87,000, according to campaign finance records.

And, even if elected, Miller will face the next challenge: winning over an office of prosecutors she once squared off with in courtrooms.

“Trust is earned,” she said. “I’d like to think that most of the assistant state attorneys I work with respect me. They don’t always agree with me, but that’s how an adversarial system is supposed to work.”