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For public defender, a day in the park is no payday

ST. PETERSBURG

He should be in court. Right now, while he's easing his 10-month-old daughter into her exer-saucer in the living room, while his coffee is getting cold because he's been chasing after her all morning, while he's wondering why baby formula costs more than beer, Gavin Magaziner should be facing a judge, defending someone.

It's 11:30 a.m. The third Monday in February. He has a dozen cases on the docket and here he is playing with a polka-dot rattle.

He hopes his clients got the letters. Especially the guys in jail. They will have to wait another day now, at least, to get their cases heard.

Guess nobody did that math.

"Oh, sweetie. I smell you. You need a new diaper already?" Magaziner, 30, asks his daughter, Sloane. He lifts her onto his elbow and carries her down the hall. His wife, Malinda, is sick in the master bedroom. Since he had to be home anyway, he's on daddy duty.

Of course, he would rather be here with his daughter than defending indigents. But he feels bad about those guys languishing in jail. And he can't afford to lose any income.

He's already sliced everything from his young family's budget — even the gym membership and cable TV — but his bills are still bigger than his salary. His $130,000 law school loan is more than his mortgage. His wife's part-time hours at the hospital just got cut.

And now this.

When the state took $1.8 million from the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's office last year, Magaziner's boss had to trim 19 of the 210 posts. He can't afford to lose any more lawyers. So he's making everyone take five furlough days, starting that Monday. That means Magaziner, who earns $50,000 a year and hasn't had a raise in almost two years — loses a week's pay — more than $800 he had already budgeted, just trying to get by.

"We never go to the movies, or out to eat. I take my lunch to work. We haven't had a vacation since our honeymoon. When Sloane was born, we couldn't afford child care, so my wife took a job at night and we only see each other for an hour a day," he says. "We have the weekends, at least. But now it's looking like I'll have to take a second job doing construction. Or maybe join the National Guard."

He changes his daughter's diaper, pulls a pink dress over her wispy blond hair, kisses her cheek. "You ready, sweetheart?" he asks, swinging her into a stroller. "Want to go for a walk?"

About the time he would be having lunch at his desk, he pushes Sloane into the February sunshine, beneath that dying tree looming over his side yard. He knows he should get it removed. But who has $2,000 to cut down a tree? He passes two houses with foreclosure signs taped to the windows. Another three with for sale signs, that have been empty for months.

He had promised his wife she could go back to college this year. Promised he would start a college fund for Sloane. They wanted to have another baby so Sloane would have a sibling near her age. Now all that is on hold. And they're just trying to hold on.

"It doesn't make any sense," he says, wheeling his daughter around Crescent Lake, several blocks north of downtown St. Petersburg. He's overseeing 120 felony cases right now. The U.S. Justice Department recommends that assistant public defenders handle no more than 200 cases per year. "And I have at least three guys in jail who could have bailed out today." It costs $79.40 a day to keep someone in jail — so the state spent an extra $238 by putting Magaziner on furlough. "That's more than I would have made today!"

Sloane is sleepy. About the time Magaziner would be back in court, he opens an umbrella on the stroller to shade his daughter from the sun. She reaches up her tiny hand and touches his cheek.

At least she's too young still to know. She doesn't miss seeing SpongeBob on cable; doesn't miss eating at Applebee's or going to Rays games or anything else her parents have to sacrifice. She doesn't even know that it's Monday and her dad should be in court.

She just knows that he's here. And they never get a day in the park, just the two of them.

For public defender, a day in the park is no payday 02/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 8:11am]
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