Make us your home page
Instagram

Public Defender's Office employees: overworked, underpaid ... and happy

Public defenders, from left, Allison Miller, Barry Cobb, Dwight Wolfe and Jessica Manuele attend hearings at the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Public defenders, from left, Allison Miller, Barry Cobb, Dwight Wolfe and Jessica Manuele attend hearings at the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center.

Lawyers, legal assistants and investigators at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office routinely deal with the worst kinds of criminals — murderers, child abusers, drug traffickers.

They haven't had a raise in six years; some even take second jobs to make ends meet.

They work in a high-stress, high-stakes arena where their performance sometimes means the difference between life and the death penalty.

And plenty of them love it.

"I'm a lifer," said Assistant Public Defender Jane Matheny. "I love my job and I don't have any desire to go anywhere."

"To be perfectly honest, I think the pay is my only complaint," said Jessica Manuele, an assistant public defender since 2007. "I do think that we're helping a lot of people."

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office made its debut this year on the Times' Top 100 Workplaces, coming it at No. 28 in the midsize category.

With no room in the $16.4 million annual budget for raises, how does the elected public defender for the two counties, Bob Dillinger, keep up morale?

Several employees say Dillinger instills a sense of purpose by stressing the need to protect the accused who have no one else to help them. By definition, none of their clients can afford legal representation.

He also knows that little things matter. Instead of adopting a generic and forgettable name for the office website, Dillinger settled on wearethehope.org. The "we are the hope" line came from a speech he gave after taking over as public defender.

"There are no lobbyists for poor people," Dillinger explained recently. "And people who have been charged with crimes, most people think they're guilty. Our job is to make sure their rights are protected."

Of course, some of those clients are guilty. But another part of the job is ensuring that every defendant gets a vigorous defense.

"I may not like this particular client, but the job is to protect that client's rights. And by protecting the client's rights, we protect everyone's rights," Dillinger said.

"We defend the Constitution every day. That means a lot to us."

Many young lawyers start out working as public defenders and prosecutors to gain valuable trial experience.

But in some places, it's a sink-or-swim approach, said Edward Abare, who worked in other public defender offices in Florida and Massachusetts before coming to the Pinellas-Pasco office. Here, he said, experienced attorneys make a real effort to train newer ones. The office has more than 100 attorneys, 12 of them board-certified and 10 qualified to handle death penalty cases.

"Even as an intern I felt like I could walk into the No. 2 or 3 in command and ask simple questions about a misdemeanor case," Manuele said. "There's always somebody to ask."

It's understood that many assistant public defenders will leave for more money and different opportunities. But even those who exit often have good things to say.

"The camaraderie in that office is just really amazing," said criminal defense attorney Jonathan Saunders, who left in 2011 after about six years.

Manuele said she gets a feeling of fulfillment from helping clients. If she's dealing with an alcoholic client who keeps getting arrested for petty theft, she'll look for a deeper solution than a simple plea bargain. She's likely to say, "Every single time this happens, you're drunk. We need to address this issue." And then look for treatment options.

Even employees who don't often go into courtrooms can watch their colleagues on the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center closed-circuit television system. They can see the lawyers in action, sometimes benefiting from research or support that they helped with.

"We're all in there with the same common purpose," said Anne Vance, a legal assistant who has been in the office for 29 years.

Sometimes people will ask her how she can work in an office that defends people accused of so many serious crimes. She just tells them, "Everyone deserves their day in court."

And she enjoys her part in it.

"There's so much energy in that office and so many really, really, smart, enjoyable people. How could you not like that?"

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.

The Public Defender's office for the Sixth Judicial Circuit covers Pinellas and Pasco counties. Elected Public Defender Bob Dillinger has a budget of $16.4 million and 215 employees who handled over 79,000 cases in 2012.

The Public Defender's office for the Sixth Judicial Circuit covers Pinellas and Pasco counties. Elected Public Defender

Bob Dillinger has a budget of $16.4 million

and 215 employees who handled over 79,000 cases in 2012.

 

Public Defender's Office employees: overworked, underpaid ... and happy 04/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 1:39pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. PunditFact: George Will's comparison of tax preparers, firefighters based on outdated data

    Business

    The statement

    "America has more people employed as tax preparers (1.2 million) than as police and firefighters."

    George Will, July 12 in a column

    The ruling

    WASHINGTON - JANUARY 08: Conservative newspaper columnist George Will poses on the red carpet upon arrival at a salute to FOX News Channel's Brit Hume on January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. Hume was honored for his 35 years in journalism. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
  2. Appointments at Shutts & Bowen and Tech Data highlight this week's Tampa Bay business Movers & Shakers

    Business

    Legal

    Retired U.S. Navy Commander Scott G. Johnson has joined Shutts & Bowen LLP in its Tampa office as a senior attorney in the firm's Government Contracts and Corporate Law Practice Groups. Johnson brings 15 years of legal experience and 24 years of naval service to his position. At Shutts, Scott will …

    United States Navy Commander (Retired) Scott G. Johnson joins Shutts & Bowen LLP in its Tampa office. [Company handout]
  3. Macy's chairman replaces ex-HSN head Grossman on National Retail Federation board

    Retail

    Terry Lundgren, chairman of Macy's Inc., will replace Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman as chair of the National Retail Federation, the organization announced Wednesday. Grossman stepped down from her position following her move from leading St. Petersburg-based HSN to Weight Watchers.

    Weight Watchers CEO and former HSN chief Mindy Grossman is being replaced as chair of the National Retail Federation. [HSN Inc.]
  4. Unexpected weak quarter at MarineMax slashes boating retailer shares nearly 25 percent

    Business

    CLEARWATER — Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, a boating business leader issued a small craft warning.

    Bill McGill Jr., CEO of Clearwater's MarineMax, the country's biggest recreational boat retailer. [Courtesy of MarineMax]
  5. CapTrust moving headquarters to downtown Park Tower

    Corporate

    TAMPA — CAPTRUST Advisors, a Raleigh, N.C.-based investment consulting firm, is moving its Tampa offices into Park Tower. CapTrust's new space will be 10,500 square feet — the entirety of the 18th floor of the downtown building, which is scheduled to undergo a multi-million-dollar renovation by 2018.

    CAPTRUST Advisors' Tampa location is moving into Park Tower. Pictured is the current CapTrust location at 102 W. Whiting St. | [Times file photo]