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

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