Court sets out funding needs
Technology and court interpreting resources are at the top of the wish list
By Jim Ash
Florida courts are critically short of translators, state attorneys and public defenders are bleeding talent, and an avalanche of death penalty reviews is just over the horizon.
Those are some of the warnings court officials delivered to lawmakers during a recent workshop of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
Before outlining a $58.8 million request for new spending, State Courts Administrator PK Jameson acknowledged that lawmakers are facing lean times.
“It is the most critical needs for the courts,” Jameson said. “We certainly recognize the tight budget situation you are in this year. So we know that these are not all going to be funded.”
State agencies and the judicial branch are submitting their wish lists in advance of a January session that will be marked by severe belt-tightening. State economists this spring forecast a mere $52 million surplus for an $87 billion- plus budget — but that was before Hurricane Irma losses were calculated.
Lawmakers have been warned to expect a $1.15 billion budget shortfall in fiscal 2019-20.
High on Jameson’s wish list is an $8.5 million appropriation for “comprehensive court interpreting resources,” which includes raising interpreter salaries, hiring new ones, and expanding a pilot project that makes interpreters available online.
“We are unable to hire interpreters at the pay that we have in the court system,” Jameson said. “So we have a lot of vacancies that have been vacant a long time. And that includes Spanish speakers in Miami.”
Jameson said another critical priority is restoring a $2 million cut lawmakers made to trial court staff this year, one that Jameson said is already being felt in the trenches.
“They had a hard freeze for the first quarter of this fiscal year, and now they’re going to a 60-day hold on any vacancies,” Jameson said, adding that the cuts cost South Florida a mental health coordinator. “That program, which had a handful of people, with the freeze, had none. And so the work falls to the (judicial assistants) and…the system just slows down.”
Jameson’s wish list also includes a nearly $8.2 million appropriation for a new courthouse for the Second District Court of Appeal; $162,000 for the Florida Supreme Court, much of which would pay for a new position for recording court decisions; $617,470 for “continuity of operations” to keep district courts of appeal up and running during emergencies; and $350,000 to pay for a technology security assessment for the Supreme Court and appellate courts.
Jameson’s budget request was compiled too early to reflect the Supreme Court’s recent recommendation to eliminate 13 county judgeships in some regions of the state, and to create two new county and two new circuit judgeships in other areas. (See story, here.)
The Florida Public Defender Association and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association anticipated the budget crunch by issuing a rare joint appeal.
They’re asking for a combined $14.6 million appropriation, money that would pay for a $4,000 salary boost for front-line prosecutors and public defenders with three years on the job, and a $2,000 increase for new hires up to three years.
FPAA President and Eighth Circuit State Attorney William Cervone said starting assistants in his office make $45,000, or $5,000 less than their counterparts in local government, which invites poaching by other public agencies as well as the private sector.
Cervone read from a resignation letter from one of his assistants, a six-year veteran who left his $50,000-a-year post for a $90,000-a-year position with a private firm.
“Our objective is simple in words but difficult in application,” Cervone said. “We must pursue justice. The problem is, it takes years of contemplation, experience, and failure just to get close to figuring out what justice means.”
FPDA President and Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott told lawmakers the latest studies put the annual turnover rate for public defenders in Florida at close to 19 percent.
“It’s just unacceptable in terms of keeping people, training people,” Scott said. “There’s a cost associated with constantly replacing people. A cost in dollars and a cost to justice.”
Neal Dupree, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel for the Southern Region, said he and his colleagues in the other two regions are facing the prospect of relitigating hundreds of complex cases in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hurst v. Florida, that invalidated the state’s death penalty scheme.
CCRCs represent death row inmates after their state appeals have been exhausted, and the highly specialized and emotionally taxing work requires extensive knowledge of state and federal procedure, Dupree said.
CCRCs are asking lawmakers for $173,000 in new spending for a combined “aggregate pay adjustment.” Dupree said CCRC offices in Florida have lost 12 attorneys to competing states or other government entities in the past three years alone.
“In my office, I lost an investigator who got a $30,000 raise to go to Tennessee and handle three cases, as opposed, in my office, to handling 10 to 12 cases,” Dupree said. “So it’s tough for us to keep people around. Especially the nature of the work, and the fact that if you do not get relief for your client, your client is then executed.”