Making across-the-board cuts has been the preferred way that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature have chosen to deal with the state's declining revenues. Rather than setting priorities, every state agency has been told once again this year to hold back 4 percent of its budget — and that's on top of prior cuts.
The downside of such simplistic fiscal management is starkly evident in the state criminal justice system. Here, where most of the costs are related to salaries and personnel, any cuts mean fewer people to keep cases moving and on track.
In Miami-Dade County, the Public Defender's Office is so overwhelmed by rising caseloads and shrinking resources that it has gone to court to get some relief. In September, Circuit Judge Stanford Blake agreed to release the office from taking any new third-degree felony cases — between 1,000 and 1,500 cases per month. The ruling has been put on hold pending an appeal by the state. But Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer says without it, his office would have a conflict of interest among his clients because they all could not be competently represented.
Lawyers in Brummer's office who handle felony cases are now averaging 500 annual cases. For assistant public defenders handling misdemeanors, the number is a whopping 2,000 annually. In his ruling, Blake found that Brummer's office lost 12.6 percent of its funding over the last two years even as has crime has risen in Miami-Dade. The office's caseload has increased about 30 percent over four years, Brummer says.
It was bound to happen that the Legislature's ham-handed budget cuts would bump into the realities of constitutional law. In 1963, it was a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Florida, Gideon vs. Wainwright, that established the principle that poor defendants had a constitutional right to state-funded counsel if they faced potential jail time. And the attorney appointed must be able to provide effective assistance to his client, not just simply show up.
If the 3rd District Court of Appeal and ultimately the Florida Supreme Court give Brummer the go-ahead to refuse thousands of felony cases, the state will end up paying a far larger bill. Florida has Regional Counsel offices set up around the state that can take some of the overflow, but private lawyers will also probably have to be appointed to pick up the slack, and their fees will be higher. According to Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, his office's cost-per-case is $150 — a bargain for taxpayers.
The state's lawmakers might like the idea of moving criminal defendants from the police station to prison without the courts intervening. But that is not the way our justice system operates. Indigent criminal defendants must be given a lawyer who has the time to represent them. Fully funding the state's public defender offices is the best way to accomplish this constitutional duty — and declining state revenues are no excuse for abdicating that responsibility.