Justice On A Shoestring Budget

Too many cases, too little money to defend all accused

When Florida lawmakers slashed the budget for the state court system, they should have known they were shortchanging justice. But they probably didn't expect the damage to show quite so dramatically.

In Miami-Dade County, Public Defender Bennett Brummer says he plans to stop representing anyone who isn't charged with a serious felony, such as rape or murder. Other defendants will have to rely on court-appointed attorneys or hire their own.

The action is likely to throw the justice system into a turmoil, especially since other public defenders around the state are considering similar moves, says Rick Parker, public defender for the 8th Judicial Circuit and president of the Florida Public Defender Association.

Fortunately for the local justice system, officials in the 7th Judicial Circuit (which includes Volusia and Flagler counties) are working out a response that could actually make the justice system run more smoothly -- assuming all parties act in good faith. Public Defender Jim Purdy says he plans to stop assigning attorneys to defendants charged with low-grade misdemeanors, including trespassing, passing worthless checks, driving with a suspended license and possession of small amounts of marijuana or drug paraphernalia. If defendants don't face jail time, they aren't entitled to a state-funded attorney, Purdy says.

But Purdy isn't simply abandoning those clients. Both he and State Attorney John Tanner acknowledge that these relatively minor charges can seem hugely significant to people who have never been charged with a crime before. But the justice system deals with cases like this all the time -- so frequently that standard plea bargains are often offered to people who are represented by attorneys.

Purdy, Tanner and judicial officials are working on an agreement that would extend the same offer to everyone facing those charges -- in effect, creating a quasi-civil system for minor offenses, similar to the citation system established for most traffic offenses. (Tanner says his office has been acknowledging for years that some minor crimes just don't merit a full prosecution -- his attorneys routinely drop charges like drunk and disorderly conduct for first-time offenders, deeming a night in jail enough punishment.)

Under the system being developed, people who aren't willing to plead guilty to the crime they're charged with could request a trial -- but they'd have to represent themselves, just as they would with a traffic citation.

In Pinellas County, such a system has worked so well that officials there have extended it to all misdemeanors except repeat DUIs and domestic-violence cases -- something both Tanner and Purdy say they're amenable to. Doing away with incarceration for minor offenses has shown multiple benefits, including a drastic reduction in the number of people serving short jail sentences and less need for public defenders, state attorneys, judges and their support staff to spend time laboriously wading through minor charges in court.

Lawmakers who want to look tough on crime -- no matter what the cost -- may not appreciate the move toward leniency for minor offenses. But they created this situation, by slashing funding for court functions at a time when caseloads are increasing significantly. Statewide, public defenders lost $21 million, and expect to lose an additional 4 percent this year through funding "hold backs" ordered recently by Gov. Charlie Crist. State attorneys are feeling a similar pinch.

In Miami-Dade County, Brummer's drastic move could end up costing the state even more money, since many defendants will need private, state-appointed attorneys. The solution under consideration by Purdy and Tanner is far more reasonable and deserves support from the court system.

Rising caseloads

As budgets are cut, the justice system struggles to cope with a growing number of criminal cases. In the statistics below, the first number is for people charged with crimes July 2006-June 2007; the second (for comparison) the same for July 1996-June 1997; and then the percentage of increase.


  • County Criminal: 523,274; 503,395 (4 percent)
  • Criminal traffic (and DUI)*: 604,054; 519,846 (16.2 percent)
  • Circuit Criminal (felony): 230,417; 184,674 (24.8 percent)

Volusia County:

  • County Criminal: 26,015; 23,906 (8.8 percent)
  • Criminal traffic, including DUI*: 17,445; 14,840 (17.6 percent)
  • Circuit Criminal (felony): 6,457; 4,777 (35.2 percent)

Flagler County:

  • County Criminal: 1,542; 1,401 (10.1 percent)
  • Criminal traffic, including DUI*: 1,622; 806 (101.2 percent)
  • Circuit Criminal (felony): 698; 382 (82.7 percent)

* This statistic represents number of cases, not number of defendants. Source: State Court Administrator Web site.