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Prosecutors, PDs losing staff, struggling with budget cuts

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Public defenders and state attorneys are concerned that further budget cuts from the Legislature would leave them unable to handle all their cases, including addressing trial backlogs from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prosecutors and defenders are already dealing with a 1.5% per quarter, or 6% annual, budget “withholding” and legislators as part of annual budget exercises have asked them to project how they would deal with further 8.5% and 10% budget cuts.

The answer is, not well.

“We’re very concerned about what our budget for the current fiscal year will be and what our budget for the next fiscal year will be,” said 10th Circuit Public Defender Rex Dimmig, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association. “There’s a massive backlog of cases and it’s going to be very difficult to work our way through those if there is really any kind of budget cut for our offices.”

His counterpart, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association President and 18th Circuit State Attorney Phil Archer, agreed.

“I’ve been doing this for 36 years as a prosecutor and I’ve never been more fearful for state attorneys…. If we keep having these withholds and we have to keep cutting back on staff, that’s going to affect the number of trials we can produce,” Archer said. “That’s going to affect the backlog of cases, which is already at an unprecedented level.”

He added, “The 6% [withholding] that we were told to prepare for was devastating. We will make it through this year. If I had to add another 2.5% to this year’s budget withholds, I don’t know how I would do that. I will have to stop prosecuting certain crimes.

“If you take another 10% next year, there will be felonies we can’t prosecute.”

He said the reason that state cuts are so devastating is 96% to 97% goes directly for salaries, since counties provide offices and equipment.

Dimmig and Archer spoke as the Legislature began its first committee meetings on the week of January 11. The session starts March 2.

Archer said he’s already left open 19 of the 250 positions in his office, including both attorney and support staff, and had to close or reduce specialty prosecution units, such as white collar, elder abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Complicating that is working around staff who test positive for COVID-19 or who are exposed and must quarantine, he said.

Lost staff is also a problem for public defenders.

“All offices have now had to impose a hiring freeze so even when people leave the office, we are not hiring new individuals to fill those slots,” Dimmig said. “Some offices are having to take more serious steps, including requiring people to take leave without pay, sometimes it may be a day a month, sometimes it may be more than that, in order to make budget.”

Archer said underfunding may also frustrate lawyers, who in turn decide to seek other employment, adding more complications.

“I’m going to lose good career prosecutors. The mid-level ones who could be good career prosecutors, they’re going to go elsewhere,” he said. “It’s the same for public defenders.”

Both Archer and Dimmig are concerned they will be unable to meet the demand if the COVID vaccination effort, as predicted, allows courts to get back to normal in the summer or fall and begin addressing the backlog of trials delayed by the pandemic.

“There’s going to be a bottleneck if we don’t have the resources to process those cases,” Archer said, adding the task could be complicated with the end of the suspension of speedy trial rules.

He said there is a real possibility cases will be dismissed because state attorneys and public defenders don’t have the staff to handle them.

Archer said he has had some encouraging feedback from legislators.

“All state agencies are going to have some budget cuts to some extent. We hope there’s a sliding scale so that all state agencies are not treated with the same broad stroke,” he said. “I think we have received some positive feedback from key legislators that they understand and they appreciate our concerns. They are hearing that from every other agency as well.”

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