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

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