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THE ISSUE: Public defenders can refuse new cases.
OUR OPINION: Will not save money or improve system.
The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that public defenders can refuse cases might alleviate stress on the public defenders’ office, but it does not solve the problems with the imbalance in the justice system.
The issue first arose in 2008, when the Miami-Dade County public defender asked a circuit judge for the right to refuse third-degree felony cases. The judge agreed, but the state attorney’s office appealed and won. Fast-forward to May 2013 and the state’s high court has overturned the original appeal.
At the time of the request, lawyers working for the Miami-Dade public defender’s office might be asked to handle up to 50 cases in a week. The court wrote: “Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment … a damning indictment of the poor quality of trial representation that is being afforded indigent defendants.”
The ruling is a temporary fix. The state will pay a higher rate for the agency that handles the overflow of cases. The only thing the judiciary, in its role as a check to legislators, has accomplished is to put a bandage on the larger issue of a malfunctioning judicial system. The state is funded at a much greater level than the public defenders’ office and often receives other perks, such as tuition forgiveness. Granted, the state handles more cases, but the level of funding is not commensurate with the amount of work, or else you would not have public defenders handling 50 cases per week.
The unfairness of the system seemingly violates one’s Constitutional right to a speedy trial and our country’s ethical responsibility to provide fair representation in court. Public defenders often decry the practice of meet-and-greet pleas where defendants meet their public defender for the first time on the way to court and then are expected to counsel them on whether to accept a plea deal. It is an impossible task.
In some cases, public defenders are so overworked that only those sitting in jail get attention while the ones who’ve bonded out wait months for their case to move forward.
The answer is for legislators to revisit funding for the state attorney and public defender offices and at least attempt to maintain a level of balance. The present system does not work, and the State Supreme Court ruling will not fix the problems created by the Legislature.