By Gary Blankenship
While adequate funding remains the top goal, Florida courts have additional priorities in the upcoming legislative session, according to Chief Justice Peggy Quince.
In reports on February 17 to the House Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council and February 18 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Quince called for better programs to help children, families, and those with mental illnesses, among other things.
“I am concerned about the state’s performance and our ability to protect children through our child welfare system,” the chief justice said at her first appearance.
She noted the federal government audited Florida’s programs and found deficiencies in the child welfare system. While the major responsibility falls to the Department of Children and Families and local programs, courts do have a role, she said.
“We must work together to address the concerns of our children and improve the system that we have,” Quince said.
That carries over into the second goal of continuing to improve Florida’s unified family court system, which aims to have all cases involving one family heard by one judge.
“Circuit courts hear more family-related cases than they do civil or criminal. So it is imperative that we . . . ensure these cases are heard expeditiously,” Quince said.
Last year, a special Supreme Court subcommittee drafted an ambitious plan for overhauling the treatment of the state’s mentally ill citizens. It called for more community-based monitoring and treatment, which in turn would reduce the use of jails to house the mentally ill, many of whom frequently cycle in and out of incarceration. The plan was introduced in the Legislature last year but, in a session dominated by budget worries, failed to advance.
“There really is presently a revolving door in the Florida mental health services system. We wind up with recidivism . . . and a breakdown in our criminal justice system, wasting dollars,” the chief justice said. “We spend a half a billion dollars on these mentally ill patients. To address this issue, legislation has been introduced to create a safe, effective, and cost-efficient system.
“It will decrease crime, improve public safety, and improve public health.”
Quince also called for supporting drug courts, saying they are “a real alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders with addiction problems.”
She noted a federal study that said drug courts can reduce crime by 18 to 26 percent, and the better drug courts by 35 percent. They have also been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism, which saves the state money on prisons and other related costs.
While those things are important, Quince reiterated the court system’s top goal for the year will be funding.
“Without adequate funding, we are sure to fail in our attempts to administer justice and in the initiatives I have talked to you about today,” she said. “We will not be able to adequately adjudicate cases fairly, impartially, and in a timely manner.”
Previous cuts have already reduced the courts’ budget by $50 million with a loss of 300 positions, which in turn has slowed down the handling of cases. Quince noted the recent study by the Washington Economics Group that estimated that delays in court cases are costing Florida residents and businesses $17.4 billion annually — a figure that House committee Chair Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, said he found impressive.
“The problem is not just civil cases. All divisions of our courts are affected by the loss of resources,” she said. “We continue to have concerns that our courts will be able to adequately function.”
Quince outlined the seven principles the courts are advocating as the future funding methods for the courts, which were first enunciated at the court funding summit held at the Bar’s Midyear meeting in January.
Those points are:
• Court functions as laid out in state law should be fully funded by the state.
• Fees paid by citizens to access the courts should be dedicated to supporting the courts, as provided by state law.
• Fines and costs raised through the court system should be earmarked for other “justice system partners,” which could include state attorneys and public defenders. (Not having court-imposed fines and costs used to fund the courts addresses concerns about “cash register justice.”)
• All revenues currently raised from court operations, including filing fees, should be re-evaluated to see how much of the filing fees should go to the courts.
• Higher filing fees should only be imposed after an examination and possible revision of the current filing fee split.
• Some parts of the court system —notably judicial salaries — should continue to be funded by state general revenues. (That is also intended to address concerns about “cash register justice.”)
• Money raised through fees and from other sources should be deposited in a trust fund for use by the court.
In response to a question from Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Ft. Myers, Quince said the workload of the courts typically goes up during bad economic times, and the money raised from fees and other charges should also increase, giving the courts the resources to handle their extra duties.
“I do believe there is sufficient money there that you can put in the trust fund that the court system would in fact not have a problem,” she said.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked if Quince had let local courts know the full extent of the funding crisis, including limiting or eliminating travel and the need to work long hours to resolve backlogs.
Quince said she has stressed to the trial courts the critical budget problems. The courts have both a hiring and travel freeze, she added, and any new hires must be cleared through her office.
“They know they cannot travel whenever they would like to; they know they cannot hire whenever they would like to; they know they have to be in their offices working, and quite often even though they may not be in their offices, judges are working. We take work home at night,” Quince said. “We are in fact working and pulling together to minimize the impact of the reductions that are taking place.”