BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County State Attorney's Office plans to start offering some nonviolent defendants diluted sentences. The move is prompted by state budget cuts, which will force the office to prosecute some misdemeanor crimes less aggressively.
Brad King, the elected state attorney in the 5th Judicial Circuit, said the new initiative is necessary to "move more cases expeditiously through the system." His office is operating with 14 fewer attorneys than a year ago, despite the ever-growing court dockets in the five-county circuit that includes Hernando.
Under the plan — developed in consultation with the circuit's chief judge and public defender — prosecutors will try to resolve more cases earlier in the process by making attractive plea offers to entice defendants to resolve their cases immediately.
State law allows defendants to receive up to a year in jail for misdemeanor crimes. But these new deals will typically allow them to avoid jail in exchange for court-ordered supervision or credit for time already served.
The new policy represents a significant shift in the way the circuit's prosecutors pursue criminal cases. It more closely mirrors the federal model where U.S. attorneys selectively look at particular crimes to enforce.
In years past, "you didn't have to talk about it because the presumption was you violate the law, we are going to prosecute you," King said.
Skip Babb, the circuit's public defender, isn't optimistic the plan will streamline the process. He predicts the policy also could create unintended consequences.
"It certainly isn't the solution, but it may be part of the solution," said Babb.
King's prosecutors now will look at individual cases to evaluate three factors: public safety concerns, provability and a defendant's criminal record.
"In reality, we make that evaluation on any case anyway," King said. "Now we put more emphasis on the public safety part of the case."
King refused to disclose specific punishments for different misdemeanor crimes under the new plan, saying each would be handled differently. But he broadly suggested the new policy would apply to offenses such as driving without a valid license, violating restrictions on a driver's license, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana or possession of drug paraphernalia.
"The stakes aren't as high," he said.
Treatment of other misdemeanor crimes, such as domestic battery, driving under the influence, and fleeing and eluding police, would not change.
A pilot program tested the new system on a few misdemeanor dockets in Marion and Citrus counties and resulted in significantly smaller case loads, which is progress toward the ultimate goal of consolidating numerous dockets under fewer judges and attorneys, officials said.
King acknowledged that he does not know the potential long-term effects. It could mean the courts get less income through fines, which could only exacerbate the financial crunch. It could also mean that some petty criminals showing signs of deeper problems could slip through the cracks.
The change concerns Babb, the public defender, on many levels.
"We don't know if it's going to lighten our load or not," he said. "Some things we'll do different, but some don't take any of our time anyway."
Babb also cautions that some defendants might take the reduced offers just to end the case, even if they have legitimate defenses. It already happens frequently, he explained, because a day in jail is one less pay day for many people.
"People are going to get out of the system the easy way, and if they get in trouble again they are going to jail and that's not really justice," he said. "We have a lot of not-guilty (decisions) by juries in this circuit."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.