Thursday, November 27, 2008

Budget cuts hit public defender

Office may start declining cases; state would have to pick up slack

By Nic Corbett

The public defender for the 2nd Judicial Circuit may decide next month to stop representing defendants in some misdemeanor and traffic cases, depending on whether more is cut from the office's budget.

Public Defender Nancy Daniels says her office saw an 8.5-percent cut from last fiscal year to the present one. Another 2-percent reduction happened this fiscal year. Meanwhile, case loads are increasing

"Certainly, having the public defender decline cases is not favored by the Legislature and will end up costing more state money if the cases cannot be absorbed by the new regional conflict offices," she wrote in a letter last month to Chief Judge Charles Francis. "If we are not able to enact some measures that reduce the number of cases our office is appointed to, however, we will have no other alternative."

She said that if her office decides to go forward with the move, the state would have to pay to hire private attorneys to represent the defendants. Other circuits in Florida are taking similar steps.

Right now, the four assistant public defenders assigned to County Court have a case load each of 250 cases or more — a jump of 30 percent over the past couple of years. Daniels said the situation is the worst she's seen in 18 years of service.

But others in the judicial system say that everyone's in the same situation. Cuts are across the board, straining everyone and causing workloads to increase.

"It's affecting everyone, not just here, but statewide," Francis said. "The bottom line is we are all in the same boat here. We have already taken pretty heavy cuts. We're like the Legislature. I don't think they know what the next step is."

Judges are trying to be considerate, Francis said. They're making accommodations for later court appearances and not doubling up on the court docket.

"All the judges individually are doing all they can to assist in their own divisions," he said.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Jackie Fulford said her office is not going to stop prosecuting any cases, even though budget cuts mean prosecutors are short-staffed, too.

"It just means we all have to roll up our sleeves and work a little bit harder," she said.

She said most misdemeanor and traffic cases are resolved at arraignment before a public defender is appointed. But she understands that the Public Defender's Office is worried about not being able to adequately represent indigent clients. Bigger workloads in both offices mean people are going to make mistakes, she said.

"It's going to cause problems in the judicial system," Fulford said.

Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom has seen several lawyers from both offices go to the hospital because of burnout.

"My sense is that the public defenders and the prosecutors are terribly overworked, understaffed, worse than I've ever seen it," Sjostrom said. "You can only ask people to work unreasonable hours and unreasonable demands for so long, and people start getting sick."

If the Public Defender's Office does decide to decline certain cases, it will be following in the steps of other circuits. Miami-Dade County's public defender is refusing to represent all new felony cases that don't involve the death penalty. A judge in September ruled that the office could do so, but the case has been appealed.

Before she makes her decision, Daniels said she is waiting on a third-quarter release of the budget in late December. Her office has been told that some of the funds held back will be restored that quarter.


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