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Criminal Law Section looks to reboot its Bennett Prosecutor/Public Defender Training Program

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Jennifer Zedalis

Jennifer Zedalis

The Criminal Law Section is planning to revive the George T. Bennett Prosecutor/Public Defender Training Program after the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation last summer.

“I think everybody agrees that we have to put it on this year,” section Chair Warren Lindsey told the CLS Executive Council at a January 14 meeting. “We have to roll with the tide.”

PPD Committee Co-chair Jennifer Zedalis reported that while the event is tentatively scheduled for July 31 – August 4 at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, university administrators are withholding final confirmation while they monitor the pandemic.

“We do not yet know for sure whether we will be able to have a live event on campus,” Zedalis said. “I’m assuming that we will be able to have a live program, [but] I don’t know if people will feel comfortable traveling.”

A signature event and one of the section’s most ambitious projects, the program has served more than 2,000 beginning assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders since its inception in 1979.

The program is restricted to state attorney and public defender offices that are willing to send participants. In the past, participants have generally been beginning lawyers with between six months and two years of trial experience.

They are trained by a volunteer faculty of judges, experienced trial lawyers, and law school professors in sessions that include mock trials replete with actors playing defendants and real-life fingerprint technicians and forensic psychologists “testifying” as witnesses.

Every year, a contingent of British barristers and Queen’s Counsel join the trainees and faculty, respectively, which organizers say adds a valuable international perspective.

Last March, after the pandemic forced the temporary suspension of jury trials, some judges expressed concern that young prosecutors and public defenders were being robbed of critical on-the-job training.

If health and safety concerns preclude a live event, Zedalis said the program should switch to a virtual format.

“It will not be the same, but it’s an extremely important program,” Zedalis said.

Taking the program online could have advantages.

Travel, lodging, and food are the biggest cost drivers for the program, Zedalis said. The section offsets some of the costs through registration fees and an annual legislative appropriation, Zedalis said.

But the appropriation could be jeopardized as lawmakers hunt for spending cuts to deal with a projected $3.3 billion state revenue reduction over the next two years, Zedalis warned.

“I have no idea whether we’ll keep getting the legislative appropriation,” she said.

Another possible revenue source is income from an endowment managed by the UF Foundation, development officer Daniel Hoffman told the executive council.

“It’s a resource you can draw from,” Hoffman said.

But before the executive council decides what to do with the income, Lindsey appointed a special committee to study the issues.

Lindsey said he wanted the PPD program to be as robust as possible.

Benedict Kuehne, an ex officio executive council member, suggested inviting newly elected state attorneys and public defenders to participate this year.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Zedalis said.

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