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Meet the Candidates for State Attorney in Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit

Incumbent R.J. Larizza (right) and challenger Don Dempsey (left) ran in 2020 for State Attorney in Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)
Incumbent R.J. Larizza (right) and challenger Don Dempsey (left) ran in 2020 for State Attorney in Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

Incumbent R.J. Larizza and challenger Don Dempsey are running to become the next State Attorney for Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit.

The 7th Judicial Circuit covers four Florida counties: Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia.

Here’s what voters need to know about both candidates.

Don Dempsey

Dempsey, 55, registered for this election as an NPA candidate. He is running without a party affiliation because he said “justice is meant to be blind.”

Dempsey has had his own practice as a criminal defense attorney for 27 years, with a previous career as a prosecutor for three years in Deland, Florida.

In the 7th Circuit, he’d like to see a reprioritization of the cases that the state attorney prosecutes. Dempsey wants to see a shift from prosecuting drug cases to economic crimes and exploitation of the elderly.

Dempsey noted that the First Step Act, which Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in 2018, removed the three strike laws at the federal level and is an example of sweeping criminal reform that contrasts with tough on crime rhetoric of the last 40 years.

“I think the country is right that we really need to understand that this war on drugs is over,” Dempsey said. “At some point in the war, you’ve got to realize it’s not working.”

Dempsey said he sees drug use as an addiction rather than a crime and oftentimes drug cases are victimless.

The chart above shows drug arrests across the four counties in the 7th Judicial Circuit from 2008 to 2019, based on data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Uniform Crime Reports.

“I don’t see how it’s possible to have a crime without a victim,” he said.

If elected, Dempsey plans to implement two specialized units focused on key issues within the 7th Circuit, including an elderly and vulnerable adult exploitation prevention unit and a white collar crime unit.

So far, Dempsey has raised $28,350 and spent $18,173.24 on his campaign, according to campaign finance data.

R.J. Larizza

Larizza, 62, is a Republican who has held the office since he was elected in 2008. He is from St. Augustine, and before his career as a state attorney, Larizza served as a probation and parole officer and owned a private legal practice.

So far, his campaign has raised $174,308.04 and spent 134,714.91, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

As state attorney, Larizza said his office has been successful in reducing crime rates across the 7th Circuit, over 54% from 2008.

The chart above shows the total number of arrests across the 7th Circuit from 2008 to 2019 based on data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Uniform Crime Reports.

In 2008, the total number of arrests across the 7th Circuit was 55,037. In 2019, the total number was 38,684 arrests.

In the past year, the crime rate dropped 18.5% in the 7th Circuit, according to the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

“We identify with local law enforcement [the career criminals] and we seek lengthy prison sentences.”

Under Larizza, the state attorney’s office created a career criminal unit to identify serial criminals and get them off the streets.

“We try to get them off the streets and out of the community, so they don’t intimidate, harass, victimize and recruit,” he said.

Larizza said his office also tries to identify good people who make bad decisions, who have issues like mental health, substance abuse, financial issues and works to create programs to help them. His office also has a driver’s license program to help people who have lost their license for financial reasons and have been arrested for driving with a suspended license.

“We attack it from both ends because we take the folks who were violent and dangerous and get them into prison as long as we can put them there,” he said. “And, then we tried to help folks that we can help and are amendable to help through treatment programs, mental health programs, and substance abuse programs.”

Some of the challenges that Larizza has faced include prosecuting domestic violence cases, as one out of every four homicide cases in the 7th Circuit is domestic-related.

He said these cases are extremely difficult because sometimes victims are intimidated, afraid, don’t trust the system or are reluctant to participate.

Since Larizza took office, he also hired a certified fraud investigator to help train law enforcement agencies on how to conduct white collar crime investigations.

If re-elected for another term, Larizza has a few goals: Mentor and grow the team of young professionals in his office, build upon the successes, be a force to help heal the country and restore trust in the criminal justice system.

“The criminal justice system is a dumping ground for a lot of social issues. They wind up in the criminal justice system. They manifest themselves there, but the criminal justice system is not equipped to solve those problems.”

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.