Monday, November 5, 2007

Shaky start for agency for poor


Less than two months before it's expected to start accepting cases, a new state legal agency for the poor has no office space in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
On Tuesday, Broward County commissioners will decide whether to provide free space to the fledgling office. The likely answer: No way.

The Miami-Dade branch is a little further along, but it still has about two dozen positions to fill and it also has not moved into a permanent space.

Broward commissioners see the office as one more item that state legislators want counties to pay for.

''We don't have enough space in the courthouse or in walking distance for the people there now,'' Commissioner Kristin Jacobs said. ``How in the world do they think we are going to make accommodations for them as well?''

The struggle to get the legal offices rolling in South Florida raises questions about how effective the agency ultimately can be.

For several years, private attorneys have been hired to handle cases in which the county public defender has a conflict of interest.

But that led to problems: Attorneys had a financial incentive to quickly settle cases, and some judges would dole out cases to their favorite attorneys.

Even a rotating appointment system in Broward was questionable because some judges would skip over attorneys they didn't know or trust.


Expenses soared statewide, from about $42 million three years ago to $95 million last year.

''The costs for providing these services were growing out of control,'' said state Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who pushed to create the new office.

The budget for the new agency is $59 million. Crist predicts it will ultimately save $60 million a year, although a Senate staff analysis showed it would conservatively save only $18 million.

The stakes are high. Attorneys will represent a full spectrum of defendants, including parents facing loss of custody and defendants facing the death penalty.

The fact that the Broward agency has no office and hardly any employees ''is not an ingredient for success,'' said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

Finkelstein and other courthouse regulars in South Florida say the Legislature didn't provide enough money or a realistic time frame to hire attorneys.

Legislators set a launch date of Oct. 1 and hoped the program would get under way at least by January.


''I think the system . . . has been sorely underfunded and was not properly planned,'' said Stanford Blake, an administrative judge in Miami-Dade.

The state said it was up to counties to provide office space for the new agency, but some rent money was included in the first year's budget in case counties balked.

Miami-Dade officials rejected a request for office space in October, but now are trying to find room in the Joseph Caleb Center court building.

For now, employees of the new state agency for Miami-Dade are working out of the private office of Joe George, an attorney hired to oversee Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

George said he has hired 15 employees and will hire up to 30 more. His office has taken two cases so far.


In Broward, only three of 28 positions have been filled. But Philip Massa, who is overseeing the new office in Broward, said it will be ready to start taking cases later this year or early next year.

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers -- whose members will lose the majority of their appointments -- has filed a lawsuit that seeks to shut down the new program. Members say they did not profit unreasonably from cases, where fees generally were capped at less than $15,000.

Defense attorneys warned the attorney salary cap of $80,000 would hobble the new office.

''They are going to have a very hard time hiring people, especially to handle more complicated cases like death- penalty cases, at the salaries they are going to be paying,'' said Carlos Martinez, chief assistant public defender for Miami-Dade County.


A struggle to fill the jobs or an abundance of inexperienced lawyers could lead to court delays and more appeals, some said.

''You will have innocent people staying in jail longer while this bureaucratic mess gets fixed,'' Martinez said.

But supporters say poor defendants will get better representation, because their attorneys won't have financial reasons for taking cases.

The state predicts that 20 percent of the cases will continue to be handled by private attorneys.

''Someone who says the quality of service is going down is absolutely wrong,'' Crist said. ``The 10 percent that will require sophisticated legal talent will get it. The talent may not necessarily be on staff.''

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