Courts, PDs, state attorneys lay out budget priorities
New Second DCA courthouse, more trial court clerks, better support staff pay pitched to legislators
The Second District Court of Appeal needs a new courthouse and trial courts could use a bunch of new law clerks, particularly in the civil and family divisions, and other staff to help process cases.
State attorney and public defender non-attorney staff need a raise and a “compression” salary boost for attorneys with several years’ experience who missed out on this year’s boost for newer hires.
Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels also want better support staff pay and forensic social workers to help them when they are representing parents in dependency cases.
Several more requests were made at the Florida House Judicial Appropriations Subcommittee on August 18 when it heard from third branch entities on their budget hopes for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Office of the State Courts Administrator Deputy Administrator Eric Maclure said the biggest request for the next budget year is $21 million for a new Second District Court of Appeal courthouse. That court is now working out of leased offices in Tampa and Lakeland, and had to abandon its Lakeland courthouse because of the building’s health and air quality problems.
The money would allow the selection and acquisition of a site, design, and the beginning of construction with additional building funds needed next year, Maclure said.
Other court requests include:
• For trial courts, 157 new positions, including 47 trial court clerks, with the rest being case managers and support for mediation and online dispute resolution. Another 40.5 positions are being sought for hard-pressed court interpreting services. Money is also being sought for furnishing and equipment, including allowing remote interpreters to make more efficient use of those services. The total trial court bill for those items is $19.3 million. Maclure said most of the requested clerks would be assigned to civil and family courts because the former has complex cases and the latter frequently have pro se parties, which entails extra work.
• Aside from the new Second DCA courthouse, the district courts want $125,000 for travel expenses for DCA judges who live more than 50 miles from their courthouse, similar, Maclure said, to the travel expenses the state provides for Supreme Court justices who do not live in Tallahassee. And the court wants $516,139 to hire more deputy marshals to improve security at the DCAs.
• One new position is requested for the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office to cope with the growth of electronic media and the extra work that imposes.
• The OSCA is seeking $581,568 for four new positions to help manage the increased use of problem-solving courts, such as veterans and drug courts; $317,446 for two new positions to support family courts; and $448,696 to upgrade security to allow court computers continued access to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Florida Criminal Justice Network.
Maclure said the Supreme Court will release its annual certification opinion on the need for new judges later this year and that will be incorporated into a revised budget request.
Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone presented the requests for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. He thanked the Legislature for boosting the starting salaries for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders from $38,000 to $50,000, effective October 1.
In the wake of that, the primary concern of state attorneys is, “We truly think that all state employees, and when we say all we mean all, are deserving of a 5% across the board salary raise,” Cervone said. “I am talking mostly about our clerical and support staff [who he said frequently earn $22,000 to $24,000] who have had very little in terms of recognition of the value of the work they do and who earn very little.. . . We truly feel that all state employees deserve this and, of course, that would include our own staff.”
Other issues include adding resources to deal with police increasing the use of body cameras, which can require reviewing hours of video from multiple body and dash cams in some cases. Even a 10-minute incident may require hours of reviewing footage from multiple cameras to give the incident context and the video records must also be prepared to turn over to the defense, Cervone said.
“It becomes exponentially more work than the small amount of time that is actually involved in the incident and that’s putting a lot of pressure on our lawyers,” he said.
Another issue is increasing litigation over public records, and Cervone said state attorneys take dealing with public records requests from the public, media, and others seriously, including the need to redact protected information.
“With the passage of Marsy’s Law [the new constitutional amendment giving crime victims greater authority to keep personal identifying information out of court records], we have to be extra scrupulous with the impact of that,” he said.
The increasing use of problem-solving courts, such as veterans, drug, and mental-health courts is supported by state attorneys because of their proven track record of better outcomes, but they require more time from assistant state attorneys assigned to those venues, he said.
“That again is a burden on our staff in that the time requirements take away from cases that are in the traditional mode,” Cervone said.
He also asked lawmakers to address the “compression” created last year when starting salaries for new hires — frequently lawyers just out of law school — were boosted from $38,000 to $50,000. The problem is assistant state attorneys with three- or four-year’s experience who make around $50,000 resent that they didn’t get a raise, and Cervone said state attorneys would like to get them a $3,000 salary boost.
Rep. Michael Gottlieb, D-Plantation, asked the prosecutor why state attorneys and public defenders have higher budget requests when crime in Florida is at a 50-year low.
“A case that we used to be able to litigate to conclusion with a file that thick” — Cervone held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “is now a file this thick” — he increased the distance to about four inches.
Sentencing proceedings, because of legislative changes, now require more work, he explained, and technology also plays a role.
“If a defendant is facing a serious sentence, he is less likely or willing to go along with what we say, without forcing us to prove it. We have extensive sentencing hearings now that we did not used to have in the past,” Cervone said. “We have technology that has done great things for us in terms of being able to present evidence, but it has also generated more work, both in what we have to do to accumulate it and what we have to do to defend against its efficacy when the defense challenges it.
Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott echoed Cervone’s call for a “compression” raise for their attorneys with several years’ experience who now earn $50,000 to $65,000 and which would cost $2.4 million, and a 5% raise for support staff, with a $2.2 million price tag.
Public defenders are also seeking $1.5 million in extra funding for staffing at problem-solving courts and an extra $1 million for due process costs.
The extra pay would help address a high turnover rate, which Scott said was 20 percent last year. The money would also address the burden of handling Baker Act cases, which have risen 60 percent in recent years and reached 42,000 hearings last year, she said.
“Statewide we’ve handled over 637,000 cases last year. . . over half a million clients,” Scott reported. “We are the primary indigent defense agencies across the state handling every type of case from juvenile cases all the way through death penalty and importantly also certain civil cases like Baker Act cases and other mental-health hearings.
“We are critical to helping you achieve your policy goals of reducing prison populations, keeping non-violent offenders out of prison, and helping to strengthen communities through us helping get clients into substance-abuse treatment and other diversionary and supportive programs that can help them remain free of the criminal justice system.”
Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels
Candice Brower, noted the five CCCRC offices handle cases where public defenders have a conflict and are the primary agency for representing the indigent in certain civil proceedings, mostly dependency and parental termination.
Regional counsels were appointed to 61,163 cases in 2018 and almost 70% of those were criminal cases, Brower said.
The CCCRC budget priorities are to fix an unintended glitch in retirement policies for senior level staff that omits them from the same coverage given to other senior state employees, $368,000 to raise support staff pay, $825,000 to hire forensic social workers for dependency and termination of parental rights cases, and a technical change to allow the CCCRCs to use a trust fund for operations instead of due process expenses, where it is no longer needed.
Brower said the use of forensic social workers has worked in New York and in a test program run by the Fourth DCA CCCRC, and has been shown to speed up cases by as much as four months.
While Brower represented the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth CCCRC offices, Second DCA CCCRC Ita Neymotin made a separate presentation. She called for assigning death penalty cases to another CCCRC office when the original office has a conflict. Those cases are now assigned to private attorneys who belong to a state registry.
Assigning those cases to a different CCCRC office would save the state almost $1.4 million over using private counsel, she said.
Neymotin also asked for pay raises for her support staff and attorneys, funding in-house CLE programs for her attorneys, and some technology improvements.
Capital Collateral Regional Counsels
Neal Dupree, who heads the southern region CCRC office (there are also central and northern region offices), said the regional counsels, who handle collateral death penalty appeals for indigent inmates, are seeking almost $190,000 for staff pay raises and around $75,000 for technology issues. In addition, the northern regional office is asking for almost $300,000 for a workload issue.
Dupree noted several years ago, the northern office was closed, and private attorneys handled all cases. Many of those cases remained with the private attorneys when the northern office was reopened, but Dupree said private attorneys have dropped the cases when a death warrant is assigned, leaving the northern regional offices scrambling to take over the last-minute appeals.
The raises are needed, Dupree said, because the offices had a 41 percent turnover in the past three years, and death penalty work is considered among the most demanding in the legal field.
Guardian Ad Litem and Justice Administration Commission
GAL Program Director Alan Abramowitz said his top priorities are $2 million to deal with increasing demand for GAL services required because of more out-of-home care for children stemming from the opioid epidemic, getting health-care benefits for GAL attorneys that equal those of other lawyers employed by the state, and — like agencies — obtaining a cost of living increase for staff.
Rip Colvin, executive director of the Justice Administrative Commission, asked for more money for staff salaries to help with recruitment and retention; more than $300,000 to establish a cloud computer infrastructure to improve JAC services and accountability; and beefing up the agency’s ability to detect waste, fraud, and abuse of state resources.