Friday, July 18, 2008

Public defenders make drastic proposals amid cuts

By CURT ANDERSON – 1 day ago

MIAMI (AP) — Citing deep budget cuts and a crushing workload, Miami's public defender wants to turn away thousands of poor people accused of crimes such as sexual assault and armed robbery because his attorneys can't properly represent them in court.

The drastic step is one of many proposed by public defenders nationwide who are grappling with shrinking resources and a never-ending stream of defendants who can't afford private lawyers.

"It is a pervasive national problem. Even in good budget times, it's a huge problem," said Norm Lefstein, an Indiana University law professor who has written extensively about the issue and chaired American Bar Association panels on criminal defense matters.

Miami's longtime public defender, Bennett Brummer, said the current situation violates a defendant's constitutional rights and puts his 170 lawyers in a serious ethical dilemma. Courts have long held that defendants have a right to "effective assistance of counsel," which Brummer said has been jeopardized.

"Each person has a right to meaningful representation and a meaningful day in court," said Brummer, who is retiring in January after 32 years. "They are not getting that."

Brummer's proposal, which must be approved by a judge, is among the most extreme from public defenders, who are facing budget cuts because of the economic downturn.

In Kentucky, public defenders sued seeking the right to decline new cases. Minnesota's public defenders earlier this month stopped representing parents in child custody cases. The public defender in Knoxville, Tenn., wants to stop handling misdemeanor cases.

"We found that the number of cases was causing us to make compromises lawyers should not have to make," the Knox County Public Defenders Community Law Office said in a statement.

The budget cuts in many states are only the latest blow to a system that has struggled with low pay and bare-bones budgets since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 guaranteed legal representation for all criminal defendants regardless of their ability to pay.

"The reality is that public defense in the United States is practiced in a way that is contrary to the principles of the legal profession. It's a kind of second-rate legal service," said Lefstein, who has submitted a legal brief supporting Brummer's efforts.

In Miami, Brummer runs the state's largest public defender office. He has long fought for more funding and won concessions in the past, such as in 1980 when his office began refusing to handle appeals in death penalty cases. That lasted for 10 years, until more money was guaranteed from state legislators.

State Sen. Victor Crist, who chairs the committee that funds the state's court system, said public defenders have not suffered cuts as severe as other agencies. He said Brummer was "trying to create an even bigger problem."

"I think he's trying to force the Legislature into court," Crist said. "I think it is absolutely horrible."

In 2006-07, the last year complete figures are available, Brummer's lawyers handled more than 40,600 felony cases, not including murder cases that could involve the death penalty. These felonies have risen more than 16 percent over five years and are the cases Brummer wants to stop taking.

It works out to about 392 cases for each attorney, according to Brummer. The American Bar Association recommends a defense lawyer handle no more than 150 felonies at a time, while Florida state guidelines bump that up to about 200 because evidence is more broadly available to the defense than in most other states.

At the same time, state lawmakers have slashed Brummer's budget by some 8.5 percent over the past two years, with additional cuts likely. And with a starting salary of about $42,000, the public defender's office frequently loses attorneys.

The chief judge in Miami-Dade County has scheduled a July 30 hearing to consider Brummer's request. Prosecutors oppose Brummer's plan, contending it could trigger dismissal of charges against thousands of people accused of serious crimes.

Under Florida law, a defendant must go to trial within 175 days of arrest unless that right is waived. Any delays in getting proper representation for poor defendants could run out that clock in some cases.

"They will get off scot-free," said Don Horn, chief assistant Miami-Dade state attorney. "You would have criminals being released back on the street who are victimizing new victims."

On the Net:
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