Saturday, April 5, 2008

Judge says cuts could mean trial gridlock

TALLAHASSEE A Florida judge warned Wednesday that civil trials could grind to a halt and criminal trials could face constitutional challenges because of delays if lawmakers proceed with steep personnel cutbacks for the state court system.

Belvin Perry Jr., chief circuit judge for the Orange-Osceola County area, said trials are already being delayed because of hiring freezes and a lack of workers, including interpreters.

Courts are also being deluged with foreclosure cases. Without enough resources, that could mean greater financial losses for banks and other lenders due to long waits before they can sell distressed properties, particularly if courts shift resources to criminal cases. Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, suggested that could result in bank failures.

Cuts to the criminal justice system are expected to be deeper than at any time in recent memory as the Legislature attempts to navigate through a $3 billion budget shortfall.

Judges prefer the Senate budget, which is scheduled to be voted on by the full Senate next week, because it cuts 382 court workers. The House plan would cut 542 positions.

If the House budget prevails, Perry said, it would "drive a stake through the heart of the third branch of government."

Under questioning from the senators, Perry outlined a scenario where criminals could potentially be set free because the courts would not be able to meet the constitutional "speedy trial" requirements.

"When things get lean, defense attorneys' imaginations tend to grow and they file demands for speedy trials and you can only try so many cases in a given period," Perry said.

The Senate has tried to soften the budget blow to the courts by backing more than $104 million in fee increases for cases ranging from land condemnation to foreign judgments to records expungement.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the judicial appropriations committee, said the Senate sought to raise the fees by about 10 percent, arguing that many of the fees had not been raised in years.

The issue of the court fees may be a sticking point with the House, which has only one fee increase -- relating to the reinstatement of a suspended or revoked driver's license -- and it is tied to funding for the Florida Highway Patrol.

While the House's cuts were deeper for the courts, the Senate is backing much deeper cuts for the Department of Corrections, cutting 2,200 jobs to the House's 900.

This week, House leaders released a statement on their budget, saying while cuts were "inevitable" in the judicial and criminal justice systems, they had "sought to preserve the core mission of criminal justice agencies.

"To that end, the House's budget funds the state's anticipated need for new prison construction and operation, rather than resort to early release of prisoners," the statement said.

While facing some correctional officers in the audience on Wednesday, Crist said the deep prison cuts in the Senate bill were unacceptable.

He said the Senate would work to restore some of the cuts, including reducing the number of potential job cuts and finding money to build about 8,000 new prison beds.

As a sign of that intent, Crist's committee adopted an amendment that used $26.5 million from the new court fees to restore 529 jobs to the prisons' budget.

Crist said he would work to get the Senate's prison job cuts closer to the 900 jobs backed by the House before the two chambers begin their final budget negotiations later this month.

But Crist also warned that deep cuts were inevitable in the judicial and prison systems if lawmakers "don't find new dollars between now and the end of the session."

For instance, Crist said if the Senate and House split their differences on the judicial workers, it would result the loss of 461 jobs "which is significantly worse" than the Senate's position.

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