Thursday, April 12, 2007

Legal defense office for inmates may be restored

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Senate is poised to quietly undo another favored project of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Senate has $1.6-million in its budget to resurrect an office for the legal defense of those on death row, called Capital Collateral Regional Counsel North, which the Legislature wiped out four years ago through privatization. When the issue came up on the Senate floor Wednesday, nobody questioned it.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said the Senate is following the advice of the Florida Supreme Court. Chief Justice Fred Lewis wrote to him in February asking that the Legislature re-establish the Tallahassee office because "the CCRC structure is superior."

One of the main reasons senators appear ready to toss the privatization model is that they're worried that if death row inmates lack access to competent legal counsel, it could jeopardize capital punishment in Florida.

A 2007 Florida auditor general report found that while private attorneys cost less than state-funded defense work, private attorneys also spent fewer hours on cases, averaging just 196 hours per case, compared to state-funded attorneys who averaged 355 hours per case.

In 2006, Justice Barbara Pariente hinted at that point in an opinion concerning defense attorneys' fees, writing that "the credibility of our death penalty system depends in large part on the quality of the attorneys who undertake the representation."

As governor, Bush pushed to privatize legal defense work of those appealing their death row sentences. The Legislature privatized the North Florida offices of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tallahassee, at first for just one year. Later they extended the program.

"The only reason CCRC was privatized in the first place was that Gov. Jeb Bush demanded it," said Sen. David Aronberg, a Democrat. "It was a failed experiment."

The House has no companion bill, but the issue is positioned to be resolved during budget negotiations. Sen. Crist said he heard the House might be receptive to the idea, but Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, who heads the House committee in charge of such funding, said he wasn't certain.

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