Harold Fernandez Pryor is well aware of the inconsistencies and flaws of the criminal justice system. Growing up in Dade City near Tampa, Florida, “across the railroad tracks,” he was the only kid on his block with both parents around. He describes his hometown as a “tougher neighborhood” full of crime and drugs. Indeed, many of his friends and family members fell victim to their surroundings and circumstances, and ended up behind bars.
“They had mental health issues, drug addiction issues. I saw them demonized and criminalized with no resources being offered to them,” Fernandez Pryor said.
Why not just be a part of the system to try to remedy it and fix it from within?
Those resources, he said, can help improve mental health and rehabilitate those addicted to drugs, preventing a dangerous cycle of reincarceration. When they aren’t made available, it can be difficult to break free from the “revolving door” of the system. Fernandez Pryor vowed to get involved and make a difference.
“This all had a profound effect on me,” he said, “[which led to me] saying, ‘OK, why not just be a part of the system to try to remedy it and fix it from within?”
Pryor, 34, won election as Broward County state attorney this past November, defeating Gregg Rossman. In doing so he became not only Broward County’s first Black state attorney, but also Florida’s first Black male state attorney. In his new position, he hopes to spur change through criminal justice reform and connecting with the community.
Fernandez Pryor was born on Jan. 17, 1987. His father was a state corrections officer; his mother, an assistant city clerk. Due to his dad’s profession, Fernandez Pryor learned all about the corrections system before graduating from Pasco High School in 2005.
He went on to briefly play defensive back for the University of Florida while pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. He graduated in 2009 and then attended the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University, graduating in 2012. In 2014, he took a job as a Broward County assistant state attorney, serving for three years.
“The greatest impact of the job was getting to be in the room while there were important discussions going on that were impacting people of color and poor people’s lives ... being able to be that last line of reason, defense or understanding,” Fernandez Pryor shared.
He went into private practice in 2017, before deciding to run for the top prosecutor job. His win was impressive. His opponent, an experienced Republican litigator, has more than 25 years of experience in the field. He’s also two decades older than Pryor. But as the Sun Sentinel pointed out in its endorsement of Pryor, the “better résumé” doesn’t always matter, especially when a candidate brings fresh ideas, a new perspective and diverse experience.
Fernandez Pryor won the election by almost 250,000 votes, thanks in part to the support of local activists, some of whom have been visible since the 1940s.
“I know they expect me to do big things and to be the change," he said. “I’m truly standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Nationally recognized litigator Eugene K. Pettis – named the Florida Bar’s first Black president in 2013 – is one of them. He met Fernandez Pryor around 2011 and became a mentor.
“He’s always been a very bright young man, driven toward excellence,” Pettis said. “I think he’s bringing a refreshed vision to the state attorney’s office. He brings a new perspective both generationally and because he has walked as an African American gentleman growing up here in Florida.”
Fernandez Pryor plans to make the system more “just and fair” by adding diversion programs, increasing resources for juveniles and retooling mental health courts to become “therapeutic instead of adversarial.” He says his vision is led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“One of Dr. King’s most driving quotes was, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?’” said Pryor. “He’s inspired me to get up, do something and be proactive.”
This story was written for The Miami Times by Florida International University’s South Florida Media Network.