State attorneys, public defenders hope for no more budget cuts
Public defenders and state attorneys have what might seem, in a normal year, an unusual budget supplication for state lawmakers who soon will be grappling with Florida’s 2021-22 fiscal plan.
“It’s ‘Leave us alone.’ That’s our number one budget request,” said 18th Circuit State Attorney Phil Archer, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “Our universal request that we have expressed to the governor and legislative leadership in both houses was not to have any budget cuts in the upcoming budget.”
“Our primary priority is to just not be cut,” said Eighth Circuit Public Defender Stacy Scott, speaking for the Florida Public Defenders Association. “If we can just keep the people we have, I feel we overall can do a good job…and then with some targeted nonrecurring funds for the [COVID-19 pandemic] backlog.”
“We asked [them] to please let us hold on to what we have,” added Candice Brower, director of the Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel office for the First District Court of Appeal jurisdiction.
That’s different from a normal year when they might be requesting additional funds and new programs.
By not cutting, Archer, Brower, and Scott mean from the budget that was originally approved for Fiscal Year 2020-21. That has been subject to a 6% holdback, which has led to layoffs and unfilled vacancies at public defender and state attorney offices around the state.
So far, they have had success in that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s proposed budget maintains their appropriations — without the 6% reduction — and legislative leaders have also been encouraging. There’s also hope that the money withheld this year could be released.
“Of course, we would love to see the money that was withheld restored to our offices, which would help to rehire some of the people we had to lay off or some of the positions that have gone vacant since last year,” Archer said. “We understand the difficulties of restoring those monies based on existing shortfalls.”
Scott, Brower, and Archer said the challenge for the next year, as the pandemic is expected to wane and courts resume normal operations — including a resumption of trials — will be handling the cases that have stacked up while courts have largely been closed to in-person proceedings.
As examples, Scott said pending cases have gone up 52% for the 11th Circuit public defender, 32% in her circuit, and 59% in the Fifth Circuit.
“There’s a backlog of work, the caseloads have increased. We have not,” she said. “We really need our people to be able to do our essential constitutional functions.”
Brower said the rate of case filings is remaining about the same, but without trials the clearing of cases has slowed. She said her office has been able to handle its representation of low-income parents in dependency court because after initial delays at the start of the pandemic those cases are now largely handled online.
Prosecutors and public defenders could wind up asking for higher budgets if the Legislature approves a request from the Supreme Court for $16 million next year — and additional funding in the following two years — to address court backlogs, including trials. Brower, Archer, and Scott said there’s simple math involved. If more money is approved to hire new judges or use retired judges to address criminal cases, state attorneys and public defenders will need more attorneys to staff those courtrooms.
Scott said public defenders would need an additional $12 million over three years to meet that demand.
Archer said, “That would entail hiring additional staff, prosecutors and public defenders, in order to deal with that same backlog.”
“If they’re going to talk about handling more cases at one time, our lawyers can only be in one place at one time,” Brower noted. “Everyone has cases piling up. Once the floodgates open up and things start moving, it’s going to feel like a lot more cases.”
A particular concern for the CCCRCs, Brower said, is getting to death penalty cases since their offices have relatively few attorneys qualified to handle those trials.
“With new death penalty cases in my region, we’re not going to be able to get to those for years,” she said.
She also said her office will be foregoing a budget request to expand an initiative begun last year when the Legislature approved adding two social workers to her staff to help in cases where CCCRC attorneys represent low-income parents of children in dependency court.
The social workers help speed up cases, including reunifications of families and Brower had hoped to hire more social worders next year, but “I understand where we’re at here.”
Brower has slightly different budgeting challenges than Scott and Archer. Unlike them, she does not get county office, equipment, and other overhead support, which means a static budget has to accommodate things such as higher rent or other costs.
For Archer and Scott, that means 96% or so of their state budget goes to salaries and benefits, so cuts mean fewer people.
Necessary layoffs and leaving vacancies unfilled “become more devastating as we start back with the jury trials,” Archer said. “There’s going to be a floodgate of trials from this huge holdback of cases that have been sitting there.”
“Cuts are real cuts for us, they’re people,” Scott said. “We’re an essential part of the criminal justice system…and we have to be able to function. We just hope we don’t get any cuts.”