Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shorstein on budget cuts: ‘There will be cases that can’t be tried’


by David Ball

Staff Writer

With the state budget currently in limbo over how elected officials will trim more than $1 billion, State Attorney Harry Shorstein said any cuts to his office could result in major deficiencies in this region’s criminal justice system.

“There will be cases that can’t be tried,” Shorstein said in a press conference Wednesday. “Will it mean we can’t get to the trials? Will it take longer? Will it, will it clog the criminal justice system? Yes.”

Shorstein made those predictions based on rumored 4 percent budget cuts for the 20 state attorney offices in Florida. For Shorstein, that would basically equate to the elimination of 16 staff members, which he said would be “catastrophic.”

“We have cut to the bone,” said Shorstein. “Any further budget reductions would be disastrous.”

Shorstein’s Fourth Judicial Circuit office serves Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, and nearly all of his proposed $24.7 million 2007-08 budget would be funded from the state. According to his executive director, Kathy Weintraub, $21 million of that budget goes to salaries of his 383 staff members.

The City is slated to contribute just over $500,000 (down 27 percent from the current fiscal year), and the City, by state mandate, also provides some equipment and office space in the City Hall Annex on Bay Street.

Shorstein said the problem is that law enforcement agencies have increased budgets, put more officers on the streets and made more arrests, but the State Attorney’s Office has not grown to meet the increased prosecution demands.

He presented statistics from the Florida Department of Corrections that show the Fourth Judicial Circuit leads all other circuits with 42 inmates on death row and most habitual offenders sentenced to prison at a rate of 40 per 100,000 residents. Duval County also leads in the rate of incarceration to state prison and county jail.

Shorstein reported the State Attorney’s Office handled 135 jury trials out of nearly 21,500 cases filed in 2006, up from 106 trials out of about 19,000 cases the year before. But, Shorstein said the most telling statistic is the rise in homicide jury trials, which totaled 17 last year and is already at 20 this year. He said he expects to break the yearly record of 29 by the end of the year.

“We are strained to the breaking point,” said Shorstein, who anticipated more plea-bargaining and less trial verdicts if budget cuts force him to reduce staff. And that’s not all.

“Instead of seeking the death penalty,” which takes up enormous resources, Shorstein said, “maybe we’ll seek something else.”

The problem is statewide, as evidenced in a recent statement released by Mark Ober, state attorney for the 13th Circuit in Tampa and President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, that states, “Criminals are not sent to prison unless prosecutors help put them there. We cannot afford to take a step backward and reduce the budgets of our prosecutors.”

At the southern end of the state in Monroe County, the State Attorney’s Office is looking at a 33 percent turnover rate in staff as the high cost of living in the Florida Keys is driving attorneys away from a starting pay of $50,000, which is already $10,000 higher than in Duval. Jeff Overby, chief assistant state attorney for the 16th Circuit in Key West, said any budget cuts could mean some criminals would simply not be tried.

“We would have to either stop prosecuting a certain type of crime, like writing worthless checks,” said Overby. “We would have to take a segment of what we do and not do it anymore, or we’d have to lay people off without pay on a rotating basis. Nobody can afford to work for less.”

In Duval County, Sheriff John Rutherford is dealing with an increasing violent crime and murder rate, and although he is set to receive a budget increase in the coming year, he said he still will have to cut some services while focusing all his manpower to patrolling the streets and answering calls for service.

Rutherford said having his officers make arrests only to have those suspects not go to trial because of a shrinking State Attorney’s budget is simply not an option.

“Obviously, that part would be unacceptable,” he said. “I’m not going to say we aren’t going to arrest you because we don’t have the funds. We can’t keep putting them in jail and letting them go.”

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