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Economic slump forces hefty cutbacks across 5th Judicial Circuit

Court dockets are growing, but the court system is shrinking.

It's a contradiction plaguing the legal system throughout the 5th Judicial Circuit, including Hernando County.

Court officials say blame the poor economy for more court filings, blame state lawmakers for less funding. The governor warned last week about possibly even deeper cuts.

As the new fiscal year looms two weeks away, officials in all facets of the legal system — from court administration and the State Attorney's Office to the Public Defender's Office and the medical examiner — are scrambling to make plans.

For those who use the court system, either willingly or not, it means prolonged cases and less responsive service.

The big unknown is whether it will lead to inadequate justice.

Judges, prosecutors and public defense attorneys are considering ways to resolve more matters at arraignment by offering lesser punishments to entice defendants to take a plea deal before the attorneys invest effort in the case.

"We are in a very precarious position," said public defender Howard "Skip" Babb Jr. "We are at a breaking point."

The total effect on Hernando County remains unclear, but so far court personnel and attorneys here have avoided the worst.

In court administration circuitwide, four staffers were laid off, nine others were demoted or reduced to part time and one vacant position was eliminated, according to a detailed plan released by Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. after a records request.

Most of the changes affect the Marion County office — in fact, three of the four terminations —while in Hernando, only a digital court reporter was demoted.

David Trammell, the circuit's trial court administrator, explained that the Hernando branch has the lowest number of staffers. "It was a difficult decision," he said.

The cuts, about $468,000 in total, were made based on target areas set by the state and had nothing to do with job performance, he said. The digital court reporting section took the biggest hit.

The Hernando clerk's office receives some funding from the state, but Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai said she is still unsure if she'll lose money. Even the regional medical examiner's office is decreasing its budget by $100,000, eliminating three positions and finding efficiencies as it undergoes a reorganization.

In the State Attorney's Office, 17 vacant positions are being eliminated as the budget falls by more than $500,000 next year. State Attorney Brad King said he began reducing staff through attrition nearly a year ago, which allowed him to avoid layoffs.

The Brooksville office lost one vacant support staffer but managed to fill two empty attorney positions.

In the Public Defender's Office, Babb must cut $587,000 from next year's budget. The bulk will come from the elimination of eight positions. Already, six attorneys have left, one more was fired and one position is on the chopping block.

Even before these cuts take effect, Babb said his attorneys all handle hundreds more cases than recommended by the American Bar Association. With more assistant public defenders leaving, that burden will only grow.

Babb said he does not plan on turning down cases — as public defenders in other counties have vowed to do — but that may change.

His sentiment reflects the certainty that the number of criminal cases won't decrease in coming years and prompts a larger discussion about prioritizing certain cases and pursuing others less ardently.

"Realistically right now, the situation we have to recognize is we have fewer resources to deal with prosecuting and defending criminal cases," King said. "We cannot do the same number — certainly not more — with less staff.

"We are identifying what's most important to citizens of (each) county public safetywise … and realizing that we simply can't do everything anymore," the state attorney said, noting it could differ by county.

King said there is no discussion of dropping lesser crimes, but the group is asking itself some tough questions with major public policy ramifications.

"Is fishing without a fishing license a significant criminal offense?" King asked, identifying one hypothetical situation. "We may look at it and say it's not."

King said his attorneys will try to wrap up cases quickly, but he dismissed any worry that innocent people will get trapped into plea deals.

"I don't have a serious concern about that because if a person says, 'I didn't do it,' " he said, "we've always been willing to listen."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

By the numbers

$587,000 The amount cut from the Public Defender's Office's budget next year. Eight positions are being eliminated.

$500,000 The amount cut from the State Attorney's Office's budget next year. Seventeen vacant positions are being eliminated.

$468,000 The amount of cut made within the 5th Judicial Circuit court administration. Circuitwide, four staffers were laid off, nine others were demoted or reduced to part time and one vacant position was eliminated.

$100,000 The amount cut from the regional medical examiner's budget next year. Three positions are being eliminated.

Economic slump forces hefty cutbacks across 5th Judicial Circuit 06/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 9:16am]
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