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a florida perspective on public defenders
November 1, 2000
Governor Jeb Bush
The Capitol
Tallahassee, Florida 32302

Dear Governor Bush:

On behalf of the Florida Public Defender Association, we are writing in response to the directives from the Governor and the Legislature to identify plans to cut 5% of statewide budgets in the 2001-2002 budget year and for a 25% work force reduction over a five year period beginning with the 2001-2002 budget year.


It's been a long time since 1963 when Clarence Earl Gideon found himself sentenced to a Florida prison without the benefit of a trained lawyer and armed only with a pen and a legal pad. He petitioned the United States Supreme Court and was able to convince them that what happened to him was not right. He convinced them that a competent lawyer was necessary in America for a fair trial in a criminal case. We have made tremendous progress over the years in the administration of justice in Florida, and our Public Defender system is largely responsible for that. Now, as we enter the 21st Century, you have asked us to make across the board cuts in our already inadequate resources. We have concluded that to do so would be a step in the wrong direction, placing many people in the same posture as Mr. Gideon was years ago in a court facing incarceration without competent representation.

The Public Defenders of Florida have received copies of the Florida Supreme Court's response to the proposed cuts in funding as well as the Florida State Attorney's response. We wholeheartedly concur in their well thought out remarks explaining why they cannot agree to budget cuts. The Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly noted the under-funding of Florida Public Defenders in case after case, upholding the right and the constitutional responsibility of public defenders to withdraw from cases when overflow caseloads create a conflict between a public defender's duty to handle indigent cases and the ability to provide effective representation to all clients.

Our Association is in the same situation, as the State Attorneys and the Courts, as explained in their letters of response. As the Legislature continues to focus on crime prevention and punishment, our lawyers are becoming more and more overworked and frustrated with the difficulties of their work. They are resigning earlier and more frequently than in any other time in Florida Public Defender history. Any cut in funding would exacerbate our problems and render the notion of equal justice to all a sham and a mockery.


As the State Attorneys have pointed out, Florida's crime rate has been higher than the nation's crime rate. This has drastically increased Public Defender workloads as well. Virtually all of the some 1400 assistant public defenders handle caseloads far exceeding the American Bar Association standards for caseload management. Implementation of new laws such as "10-20-Life", "Three Strikes" and "Jimmy Ryce" civil commitments have increased responsibilities of these attorneys who are already overworked. We foresee no 5% reduction in legislation in the criminal law field in upcoming sessions. In fact, every session brings new "get tough" initiatives, which further increases our workload.


The Public Defender system currently finds itself in a crisis in recruiting new entry-level lawyers and in the retention of our experienced assistant public defenders. Instead of cutting Defender budgets, our #1 Legislative priority for the 2001 session is increased funding in the form of competitive pay increases for assistant public defenders. In order to attract young lawyers to the public sector, our pay levels must be increased and the number of lawyers to handle the ever-increasing caseloads must be increased. This is the #1 priority of the Florida Prosecuting Attorney Association as well.

The Legislature must realize that targeting crime as a priority comes with a price tag. Without a competent professional workforce in the Public Defender system, the State Attorney system and in the Courts, the Criminal Courts will be in chaos. Some already are. Many counties in our state are already subsidizing Public Defender budgets. Experienced assistant public defenders are resigning at an alarming rate. Qualified applicants for entry level employment are at an all time low. Because of this, Courts are facing the unavoidable consequences of multiple continuances, backlogs in court dockets and even appointing private counsel to represent indigent defendants. Already, we are unable to do the basic necessities of law practice: answering the phones, scheduling timely appointments and seeing clients in jail before their court dates. The public is legitimately dissatisfied with this level of service. County governments may be forced to pay for the management of their counties criminal activity in the short run, until the State of Florida then has to pick up the Article V costs in 2004. Budget cuts at this time would be devastating and Florida courts will not be able to let constitutional obligations go un-funded.


Because up to 95% of Public Defender budgets are salaries, a 5% five-year reduction would have to come from personnel. The Public Defender system is shorthanded already. Reducing government in Florida is worthy of the attempt and is a laudable goal. However, the reality of crime in society is inevitable. There will be no 5%-25% reduction in crime from 2001-2006. Our constitutional mandate requires Public Defenders to respectfully decline to identify cuts. It demands that we fight for increases in staff, salaries and benefits. And it further requires that we use every effort conceivable to persuade the legislature and the Governor to exempt us from the budget cut process in the interest of equal justice in Florida.


Howard H. Babb, Jr.
Florida Public Defender Association

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