Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Public defenders overloaded

As state agencies struggle under the burden of budget cuts, some public defenders say they cannot adequately handle a growing number of cases with reduced resources.

In Miami-Dade, Public Defender Bennett Brummer is withdrawing from felony cases that don't involve first-degree murder or sexual assaults on children, the Miami-Herald reported. Brummer has said his office can't ethically take more cases than it has time to handle.

Other public defenders in Broward, Pinellas and Pasco counties are considering similar moves, the Herald reported.

Daytona Beach Public Defender Jim Purdy, whose office provides legal representation to the poor in four counties including Volusia and Flagler, says he's working with judges and prosecutors to reduce caseloads for his 57 attorneys.

Although not as drastic as steps taken elsewhere in the state, Purdy plans to expand on a court rule that limits public defender services to those who face jail or prison.

"I believe I will be able to work with the chief judge and State Attorney's Office to find a remedy short of that step," Purdy said. "We're looking at possibly using a court rule that says if the court is not going to impose a jail sentence, then the Public Defender does not have to be appointed.

Reducing the number of misdemeanor cases his attorneys now handle in the 7th Judicial Circuit -- charges like trespassing, disorderly intoxication, petty theft and first-time arrests for marijuana possession -- could reduce his office's caseload by a third, Purdy said.

"We're going to have to come up with some ideas in the way we do business, in order to handle the volume of cases that we have with the number of attorneys we've been allowed," he said.

For the 2007 fiscal year, Purdy's office had a budget of about $8 million. For this year, that amount was reduced to $7.4 million. But the number of cases is growing, now numbered at about 44,166 felony, misdemeanor and juvenile delinquency cases a year. The lion's share of those cases -- 30,558 -- are in Volusia County, Purdy said.

He is also working to get people charged with certain offenses -- like shoplifting -- released from jail with time served.

Other ideas to reduce caseloads could require legislative action, like allowing some people who get their driver's licenses suspended to take a class and get a hardship license. "We're doing what we can as painlessly as we can," Purdy said.

With the national economy weakened by real estate woes, cuts have left public defenders across the country struggling to do their best work for poor clients. The 6th Amendment says the government must pay for legal representation for those who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

In Miami, Brummer has argued successfully three times in the past 32 years that a defendant's right to counsel means that person should get a lawyer who can represent him or her adequately. So a private attorney is appointed.

A hearing on one of Brummer's motions to withdraw from a case is set for Friday.

Virtually no county in Florida has escaped the effect of budget cuts on judicial resources. Purdy says the effects will vary from place to place.

"They will vary from county to county and judge to judge, but it will all take the cooperation of the courts, the prosecutors and the clients," he said.

Local lawyer wants to change rule so only jail cases are served

Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Budget cuts push defenders into corner

If you didn't know better, you would think that Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer's response to state budget cuts is an extreme overreaction. Mr. Brummer says that his office will no longer accept appointments to certain noncapital felony cases, such as robbery, burglary, drug possession, grand theft, etc. It's a drastic move that could throw courts into turmoil, and it could end up costing the state more in fees to private attorneys to make up for public defenders' absence than the budget cuts save. The decision is not a bluff or a ploy -- and Mr. Brummer is well justified in taking the action.
No room for trimming

It is true, as Mr. Brummer says, that the public defender's office is underfunded and short-staffed. The state cut the office's 2009 funding by 4.2 percent, and 2008 funding was cut 5 percent. For many state agencies, losing 9 percent funding over two years is painful, but manageable by cutting back expenses, administrative costs, travel, etc. For public defenders -- and for prosecutors and courts, too -- there is little or no room for trimming nonessentials. Ninety-five percent of the public defender's budget is for salaries, the bulk of which is for lawyers. The rest is for investigators, secretaries, clerks and other support staff.

The cuts have forced Mr. Brummer to reduce the number of lawyers at a time when the number of cases is increasing, and on top of cuts made in previous years. In 2004, for example, lawmakers cut funding for 30 of the 82 lawyers the state supported in the office. As a result, some of the 177 lawyers in the office now handle as many as 150 cases each year, including capital (first-degree murder, rape, etc.) and noncapital cases. The problem is not isolated to Miami-Dade, either. Public defenders in Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Duval and counties throughout the state are handling similar caseloads.

Mr. Brummer says that it is his duty as a lawyer and a constitutional officer of the court to handle cases in a professional manner. When that standard can't be met, he believes that he has the obligation to say so. He has taken this position three times in the past -- in 1978, '81 and '96 -- and each time, the court has upheld his position. Actually, in 1981, the Florida Supreme Court -- not Mr. Brummer -- initiated the action.

Brummer is right

State lawmakers who believe that the problem is about better management of budgets have got it wrong. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Hillsborough, said that lawmakers took pains to make sure state agencies could sustain the cuts and still function.

Mr. Brummer is saying that lawmakers got it wrong with year-after-year cuts in the criminal-justice budget. The facts in the courtrooms and on the streets throughout Florida seem to favor Mr. Brummer's position.

A Miami Herald Editorial published June 4, 2008