TAMPA — While working on a documentary, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Dawn Porter spent several years following three young public defenders working in the South.
The attorneys, she learned, faced many problems, a large case load among them. The situation is similar across the country, she said.
"Here in Florida, you have one of the most egregious cases of public defender overload in the country," Porter said. "In Florida, public defenders represent 500 felony matters at a time. . . . Who's getting justice if that's what is happening?"
Porter, who directed and produced the HBO documentary Gideon's Army, led a panel discussion Saturday on how the criminal justice system affects young African-American and Hispanic men.
Held at the Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa, the panel was the finale to the four-day Black, Brown and College Bound summit, which drew representatives from more than 15 colleges and universities. Workshops throughout the event aimed to set the record straight about the perception of minority males in higher education. Earvin "Magic" Johnson visited earlier in the week as the event's keynote speaker.
Porter was joined on the panel by Tampa criminal defense attorney Rick Terrana and Miami state Rep. Kionne McGhee.
Being overburdened is just one aspect affecting public defenders, Terrana said. Money plays a big role, too.
When Terrana occasionally takes on a public defender's case, the state pays him about $1,800 to cover expenses.
"We are given no money for a private investigator, no money for a jury expert, no money to have the deposition transcripts transcribed," Terrana said.
A private client, he said, would pay up to $100,000 for those things in order to be adequately represented.
"It makes a huge, huge difference," he said. "The quality of representation becomes a big problem."
One way to change that and similar problems facing the representation of minority youth in the system, McGhee said, is to get involved at the political level.
Growing up in a housing project and overcoming an arrest and eventual dismissal of charges as a young man, McGhee said his background gives him a unique perspective that the state Legislature needs more of.
"You want to change the system, come to Tallahassee with me," McGhee said. "Get elected."
Avoiding trouble early on is paramount, Terrana said, even if profiling and stereotypes make it difficult.
"It's going to happen. What do you do? I don't know," he said. "Y'all have a right to wear a hoodie but perhaps use your head, think for yourselves, think ahead."
Talking back to cops and fighting gets you nowhere, Terrana said.
"You have to be strong. You have to have conviction," he said. "You have to have a superior mindset, believe you are better."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.