LARGO — A crisis in the criminal courthouse was averted this week when a Pinellas judge agreed to seek ways to ensure the Public Defender's Office can continue to effectively represent poor people.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger threatened last week to shutter a misdemeanor court division, leaving about 400 poor people without public lawyers for a month. Dillinger said state budget cuts forced him to eliminate a division rather than spread more work among his lawyers who already have case loads five times the recommended level.
Dillinger and Judge Henry Andringa came up with some plans to avoid a shutdown. Andringa will ask county judges to try to resolve more misdemeanor cases with plea agreements at arraignment. Judges also will be encouraged to certify that certain minor cases — petty theft, for example — will not result in jail time. Poor people can get an appointed lawyer only if they face jail time.
"The judge will make every effort to resolve the case at that hearing without a jail disposition if appropriate," said Robert Morris, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit.
Misdemeanor court divisions also will reserve a day each week in which no public defender clients will be on the docket, giving those lawyers a day to investigate cases and interview clients. "One of the problems is we're all in court all day and have no time to prepare cases," Morris said.
Dillinger said he hopes the changes will decrease his lawyers' case loads. He said the changes could begin next week. He will evaluate their effectiveness after two months.
"If this works, it will make the system go a lot smoother without sacrificing our attorneys," Dillinger said.
Morris said he understood Dillinger's complaint. The court system, like the public defender and state attorney's offices, has had to contend with budget cuts, too.
"When somebody screams uncle … we have to put our heads together and try to fix it," Morris said.