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No defense for this crisis

The money's gone. Every dime designated this fiscal quarter to pay the costs of representing indigent defendants when the public defenders office has a conflict of interest already has been spent. Since Nov. 9, attorneys, court reporters and other professionals have not been paid, and it is only due to the intervention of the governor that they will be paid before Dec. 19, the start of the new quarter. This is an intolerable situation that has to be corrected.

The state is responsible for paying for private lawyers as well as court reporting fees and expert witnesses when the local public defender's office is ethically barred from providing representation. It used to be a county responsibility to pick up this tab, but the constitutional revisions implemented in 2004 require the state to pay the bills. At least, the state is supposed to. But since the changeover, the state has failed to appropriate enough money to meet the need.

Now there is a crisis. Before Gov. Jeb Bush agreed on Friday to release the next quarter's funds early, the Justice Administrative Commission - the agency charged with disbursing the funds - was telling those submitting bills that it couldn't pay. In some places, such as Broward County, local court-reporting agencies started refusing to transcribe depositions. Now, with the governor's assent, the new money should be available shortly, though leaders of the House and Senate will also have to sign on to the early disbursement.

But this fiasco should never have happened. The budget for the civil and criminal conflict counsel program is way out of whack. According to Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, it is facing a statewide shortfall of $25-million for the remainder of the fiscal year, and there are not enough mechanisms in place to hold costs in check.

Because paying for conflict counsel used to be a county responsibility, every county maintains a different approach to payment standards and schedules. Dillinger says that within his jurisdiction, private defense attorneys receive a flat fee of $900 per criminal case whether the case settles or goes to trial, plus additional trial fees. In other places, attorneys are paid strictly by the hour, where bills can unnecessarily skyrocket.

Obviously, some uniformity and oversight are needed. All professionals should be paid reasonably for quality representation, but there are abusive billing practices that need to be addressed. Attorneys who overbill should be barred from the program.

In the meantime, the program needs to be funded adequately through this fiscal year. When the Legislature meets in special session in January, it should substantially increase the appropriation.

There is no excuse for criminal and dependency cases to grind to a halt or for professionals to have to work without being paid. The state had more than enough revenue last year to cover this program sufficiently. Better cost controls are needed, but any real fix will also involve far more realistic budget projections.