MIAMI — Poor people charged in Miami-Dade County with grand theft and drug possession may face long court delays if they can't afford private attorneys, because the public defender plans to drop lower-level felony cases to the bottom of his office's priority list.
Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer has been fighting for months to reduce the number of cases handled by the 96 attorneys in his office.
The caseload "has reached the breaking point," Brummer said in a Dec. 2 letter to Miami-Dade Chief Judge Joseph Farina.
Third-degree felonies, such as drug possession, make up about 60 percent of a public defender's caseload, according to Brummer. Each attorney manages about 500 cases.
Reprioritizing means these cases means they may take longer to go to trial, and some defendants in custody may end up staying in jail longer, he told Farina.
There are too many cases for his attorneys to effectively investigate and prepare for trial in a timely manner, Brummer said.
"The situation deteriorates week by week," Brummer told the Miami Herald. "People are entitled to a meaningful day in court, and right now I cannot say they are getting that."
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said Brummer's plan will create chaos in the judicial system and disputes Brummer's contention that there is a crisis.
"We've all had to deal with budget cuts," she said.
Seeking relief for his office after budget and staff cuts over the past four years, Brummer filed a motion in June to stop accepting new noncapital felonies. That would have meant public defenders would represent only defendants charged with first-degree murder, rape of a minor and misdemeanors that could result in jail time.
A Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled in September that the public defenders could stop accepting only new third-degree felony cases. Those cases would be handled by a new regional office created by the Legislature in 2007, Circuit Judge Stanford Blake said.
The Third District Court of Appeal has issued a stay on Blake's ruling. The appeals court will hear arguments in the case in March.