Sunday, June 15, 2008

State budget cuts weighing on scales of justice


Published Sunday, June 15, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
Last updated Sunday, June 15, 2008 at 3:10 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — One of the few booming areas in these dismal economic times are courthouses, where an explosion of foreclosures are joining the sometimes mundane, sometimes volatile crush of divorces, contract disputes and criminal cases that are always increasing in Florida.

But despite the demand, budget cuts are forcing public defenders to drop cases, state attorneys to rely on more inexperienced lawyers and courts to eliminate hundreds of jobs.

State court officials earlier this year said they needed 61 new judges statewide to handle increased caseloads. Not only were those jobs not filled, circuit and appellate courts will lose 250 positions with more than 120 layoffs.

Despite Gov. Charlie Crist's high profile push to join most of the country in automatically restoring civil rights to felons released from prison, the Florida Parole Commission's budget was cut by 20 percent with a loss of 24 jobs. The commission had asked for 42 new hires to handle increased work.

Dozens of jobs in state attorney and public defender offices are being eliminated, falling most heavily on sections set aside for specific cases like sexual crimes and drug arrests.

Miami-Dade public defender Bennett Brummer said his office will decline most felony cases in order to make sure his office can adequately represent the others.

In Sarasota and Manatee counties, nearly two dozen staff positions at the State Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office have been left vacant because of budget woes, bumping up caseloads for prosecutors and defense attorneys as they cover for their colleagues who retired or moved on to other positions.

Public Defender Elliott Metcalfe Jr. said his office could be forced to abandon the misdemeanor units, and reassign defense attorneys to felony cases, where the sanction of prison exceeds the punishment in misdemeanor cases.

On the prosecution side, the domestic violence unit in Sarasota was cut to relocate two prosecutors and two staff members to other cases. Domestic violence cases, which are time-consuming for prosecutors, are in the mix of the full misdemeanor caseload.

"I don't think the victims are getting the personal attention they were getting before," said State Attorney Earl Moreland said. "It's a difficult situation."

Lawmakers defend cuts

Statewide, the result, at best, is a longer wait in an arduous process that costs citizens more with increased fees.

"In a system that is already overburdened and slow to begin with, inevitably and everywhere across the state folks are going to be looking at more delays," said Bill Cervone, the state attorney for Gainesville and rural North Florida.

Kent Spuhler is the executive director of Florida Legal Services, a group that provides assistance to low-income residents in court. He said increased fees on applying for indigent relief and longer delays mean battered women who need a divorce to escape domestic violence may be stuck.

"If she says, 'I can't handle all of that,' then she'll stay in a vulnerable situation and her kids will stay in a vulnerable situation for violence," Spuhler said. "It's just taking people from the legal system, which is supposed to be the organized resolution of problems, and putting them back in the street for the disorganized, violent resolution of problems."

And the opportunity for state attorneys and defenders to see more profitable and calm work in private law offices may mean less experienced counsel and more turnover.

"We're not going to be able to replace them with people with the same level of experience," said Cervone of his staff. "A rape victim is, unfortunately, going to have the prospect of having to repeat the story to a second or even a third attorney as a case winds its way through court."

Florida lawmakers defend the cuts, saying judicial managers took a smaller reduction than many other parts of state government. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, the chairman of the Senate judiciary budget commission, said with the state budget dropping nearly 10 percent from last year due to plummeting tax revenues, every state agency has to share the pain.

"It is extremely disheartening," said Crist of the complaints from judicial officials. "We do not print money. The public will not allow us to raise taxes when they're losing their jobs and businesses and homes. All we're asking is everybody in the budget to ante up, bite the bullet and share equally in the reductions."

But those in the judicial system say the cuts could backfire into higher costs to fulfill the legal requirement of providing representation for those who cannot afford it.

Courts will be forced to refer defendants to court-approved private attorneys who charge more than double the cost of public defenders, said Richard Parker, president of the Florida Public Defender Association. He said he had no immediate plans for similar cutbacks in his North Florida district that includes Gainesville.

Sen. Crist, no relation to the governor, said public defenders are angling for a lawsuit over inadequate legal representation that would force lawmakers to spend more for those offices.

"That's what this is all about," he said. "There is no need to shut down and deny access or service."

But public defenders say that when rising caseloads are combined with smaller staffs, something has to give.

For example, the 20th Judicial Circuit, which covers Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties, has already lost one public defense attorney and will also see the loss of two investigators and support staff.

Last year, the circuit handled 49,214 cases. This year, caseloads are looking as though they will top 60,000, said Delroy Blake, financial manager for the office.

"Especially in these trying economic times, we have people being charged that would have no other option than to have a lawyer appointed by the public defender," said Kathy Smith, public defender for the 20th Judicial Circuit.

"It's a constitutional office and we will continue to provide services. Without it, it's not the United States of America," she said.

Costs passed on in fees

In order to offset some of the cuts, lawmakers agreed to raise fees by almost $135 million next year according to the Florida Bar.

For example, the fee for filing an eviction will rise from $75 to $295. Increased filing fees for prosecution will rise to $50 for misdemeanors and $100 for felonies.

The fees also increase for requests for public defenders, and indigent parents seeking appointed court attorneys will pay $50.

The use of some fees divides state attorneys as well as public defenders. Some pursue collection of the fees vigorously, others find them distasteful.

Cervone called some of the fees "almost unconscionable" when low-income Floridians are the target.

"More of us were of the view that it's getting much too close to 'cash register justice,' " Cervone said of the reliance on access to courts as a revenue source. "To try to fund things like criminal proceedings through a service fee -- it's just not going to work."

"It's making a bad situation horrible," Spuhler said. "Florida is the only state in the nation that doesn't waive fees for indigents. Unbelievably, in many parts of the state, that payment plan is a negotiation between a clerk and an indigent person. It's not flea market justice."

But Crist defended the fees, saying that they had not been adjusted for years. He said many defenders and state attorneys have effectively collected the fees and others need to try harder with credit and background checks on those who say they cannot afford to pay.

It is not only lower-income Floridians that will be affected by the cuts. All lawsuits, from residents seeking insurance payments to banks moving on with foreclosure evictions, will likely take longer.

Jay White, the incoming president of the Florida Bar, said everything from insurance companies or residents seeking to settle disputes to businesses wrangling over contracts may see their lives put on hold in courts.

"Instead of taking you six months to get that hearing, it may be three years," he said.

For the last four years, people bringing their anxiety and unanswered questions to a domestic violence court first met with Pam McLeod.

The family division case manager had already researched their criminal histories and any other cases they were involved in or to see if one of the parties was in jail.
McLeod talked with the victim, then the respondent, got a good grasp on the issues and reported all that to the judge. She often got the parties to agree to a court order before the case went before a judge.

She worked on 1,994 cases last year. But the budget cuts will eliminate her position, and a similar position in Manatee County, which streamlined the process and gave victims a way to meet with someone before the intimidating atmosphere of the courtroom.

Those who petition for injunctions against spouses or significant others often do not realize all the options available, and McLeod has referred them to counseling and treatment.

"It's going to be frustrating for litigants," said McLeod, who has 18 years of experience in the court system. "They will be here longer, they will have less attention to their questions."

Herald-Tribune staff writers Todd Ruger, Michael Scarcella and Kate Spinner contributed to this story.

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