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A Times Editorial

Court system learns to make do with less

There is a big difference between having a lawyer to represent you and having the illusion of one. Having a public defender who has been appointed to handle so many cases that he or she has no reasonable opportunity to prepare an adequate defense is essentially like having no lawyer at all.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger faces that quandary. He says his attorneys already handle many times the recommended caseloads, and the $1.5-million budget cut required by the Legislature has resulted in a reduction of 20 full-time positions, about half of them lawyers. Rather than increase the workload for his remaining lawyers, Dillinger initially announced he would start refusing to accept additional cases in a misdemeanor court division.

But now, after discussions with Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Robert Morris; Judge Henry Andringa, who administers the division where the cuts were expected; and the State Attorney's Office, new procedures have been adopted to make that drastic move unnecessary. The agreement calls for a combined effort to reduce the public defender caseload by encouraging more initial pleas with generous offers. Guaranteeing defendants facing misdemeanor charges they won't face jail time means a public defender doesn't have to be appointed for them.

Morris says he understands the seriousness of the personnel crunch. "It is what we have to do in lean times," he says.

Dillinger's position is completely justified. He says attorneys in his office working felony cases had five times the caseload recommended by a national advisory body. Dillinger says his office is now down five attorneys in county court while caseloads for 2008 already have increased 10 percent.

Dillinger has a professional and constitutional duty to determine at what point representation by his office becomes ineffective. Rather than taking on more work with fewer professionals, Dillinger demonstrated he has the political courage state lawmakers lack to say, "Enough." He is making sure defendants his office represents will have an attorney by their side with the capacity to serve their interests.

If the understanding works as intended, the courts will schedule one day a week for cases where defendants are not represented by appointed counsel. That would free public defenders from attending court that day, allowing them time to work on their other cases.

County court judges will have to start routinely certifying that there will be no possibility of jail time for numerous defendants who are facing low-level charges and first-time offenses. Only in those circumstances is a defendant not constitutionally guaranteed counsel.

The agreement is a smart way to proceed. It will husband our dwindling criminal justice resources for the more important cases and encourage quick and early judgments about petty infractions. If the system is expected to do more with less, then all parties have to work together — as they have here — and there will have to be a little more leniency shown to those who probably shouldn't be going to jail anyway.

Court system learns to make do with less 06/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2008 9:48pm]
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