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State attorneys, PDs seek resources to stem turnover, staff shortages

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CapitolProsecutors and public defenders are warning that skyrocketing turnover and staff shortages have reached crisis levels.

Veteran Eight Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott, vice president of the Florida Public Defender Association, told a Senate panel October 13 that for the first time, she’s been forced to place help wanted ads.

And nobody is responding, she said.

“We’re in a crisis,” Scott told the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee where court system stakeholders presented their budget requests. “I’ve been an elected public defender over 11 years now, and I’ve never seen this kind of crisis before.”

Public defenders are experiencing a 26% turnover rate statewide, but in some circuits it’s 50% or higher, Scott said. At the same time, public defenders are facing 443,000 new cases.

“That’s in addition to the cases that were frozen when the pandemic shut us down,” she said.

Scott asked for an additional $7.8 million to give a $5,000 pay increase to assistant public defenders. She thanked lawmakers for recently raising starting salaries to $50,000 but said it hasn’t helped retain experienced trial lawyers and recruiting has slowed to trickle.

“You cannot take a wet-behind-the-ears brand new lawyer and put them on a serious case,” Scott told lawmakers.

Private firms have been aggressively recruiting lawyers as the pandemic recedes, Scott said. Some of her staff are being offered raises ranging between $15,000 and $20,000.

“The civil backlog is also impacting the criminal justice system,” she said. “[Private firms] are poaching our attorneys at a rate that I’ve never seen.”

Second Circuit State Attorney Jack Campbell, vice president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said prosecutors are witnessing the same exodus.

Criminal cases have jumped from 51,273 pre-pandemic to 76,215 now, a 49% increase, Campbell said. Misdemeanors rose 54%, from 203,194 to 312,898.

At the same time, Campbell said, the number of front-line prosecutors has plunged from 2,708 four years ago to 1,890. Over the same period, Florida’s population swelled from 20.9 million to 21.6 million.

Prosecutors are asking for $13.3 million in additional money, or a 3.34% budget increase, to hire 270 assistant state attorneys and 450 support staff.

“That’s just holding par,” Campbell said. “Long-term, what we need to do is — we’ve got to make those salaries competitive.”

Campbell also said the recent starting pay increase authorized by the legislature for assistant state attorneys created resentment among more experienced prosecutors, or what he called “compression issues.”

“I have people that started at $38,000, who crawled their way up to $50,000, and they got caught by an intern,” he said. “That’s dealt some severe morale issues, which we are trying to deal with.”

Caseloads will climb even more significantly for prosecutors in the circuits where lawmakers agreed to add new trial judges this year — the Seventh, 13th, 14th and 20th  — Campbell warned.

“A judge is a wonderful thing, but without somebody talking to him, or her, he can’t do much,” Campbell said.

The high rate of assistant state attorney turnover also causes heartbreak and frustration for victims of crime and their families, some of whom have seen cases handed off to multiple prosecutors, Campbell said.

“For a homicide victim’s family, it’s unbelievably painful to have a third prosecutor working on their case,” he said. “I assure you that, if you have someone in your family who was the victim of a serious crime, you want someone who has experience.”

Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon told the panel that the court system is requesting $10 million to fund a second year of its “Pandemic Recovery Plan.”

Chief Judge Mahon said the court system is relying on temporary resources, much as it did to address the avalanche of foreclosures that followed the economic crisis of 2008.

“This is what I call the mouse in the snake,” Judge Mahon said. “We feel like we really need that second year.”

Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, pressed for more details about the pandemic recovery plan.

“Have you got any sort of plan to deal with this?” he asked.

Katie Cunningham, a deputy state courts administrator, thanked Grainger for the question.

“It’s for two things, we’re trying to hire temporary adjudicatory resources, senior judges, OPS magistrates, but we also have to focus on the case support side,” she said, adding the courts, like many employers, are also facing recruitment issues.

“Hiring temporary resources is more difficult than we thought,” she said.

“Barring a miracle,” the courts are likely to ask for a third year of temporary funding for the Pandemic Recovery Plan, Cunningham said.

The courts are also seeking for $21.6 million to give the state’s trial court judges a 10% salary increase, Cunningham said. The raise would increase Florida’s national circuit judge salary ranking from 26th to 15th, she said.

“More importantly, it will really help the branch recruit and retain quality trial judges,” she said.

Cunningham said the courts are also asking for $7.7 million in recurring general revenue, plus $3.1 million in non-recurring funding, to fill 65 positions for technology support.

Another approximately $300,000 is needed to fill three full-time support positions, including one that would oversee data collection for problem-solving courts, Cunningham said.

The Supreme Court is also asking for $591,000 to create a paid “Supreme Court Fellows Program,” Cunningham said.

The program is modeled after similar ones in the Executive Office of the Governor and the Legislature, she said.

“The justices are really excited about this,” she said.

Mahon said the courts are also requesting $4.9 million for an appellate court case management system to replace an outdated one that is no longer vendor supported and another $3 million for courthouse furnishings that aren’t supplied by local governments, Mahon said.

 

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