Florida courts brace for budget fallout

first_img November 1, 2001 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Florida courts brace for budget fallout Florida courts brace for budget fallout Senior Editor With a prediction of poorer and slower services to litigants and fewer services for children caught up in the court system, Florida judges, prosecutors, and defenders are bracing for the outcome of the special legislative session to address the state’s budget shortfall. The session began October 22, as this News went to press, and was scheduled to end no later than November 1. But even before the session, called to address an estimated $1.3-billion revenue deficit, courts and related agencies were cutting back and planning for possible further budget reductions. In a September 26 memo to chief judges, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Wells ordered a halt to all hiring, except for judicial assistants, and a moratorium on purchases of equipment and office furniture. In turn, Wells was asked by the House and Senate appropriations committees to identify how the court budget could be cut by five percent. Trial courts also began coping with cutbacks in state programs that affect their operations, such as not having probation officers in every courtroom. And state attorneys and public defenders are grappling with the real possibility of furloughing employees and not being able to handle their caseloads. The problem, say many court officials, is their budgets are mostly salaries with little other spending, and any cuts mean reductions in service. “We don’t have much wiggle room,” said Skip Babb, Fifth Circuit public defender and president of the Florida Public Defenders Association. “We don’t anticipate a five or seven or 10 percent cut in arrests or informations filed or people charged with capital crimes and facing the death penalty. Our caseloads are already overloaded. We’re in quite a dilemma. We have a constitutional responsibility to do this work, and we’re already busting at the seams.” The budget problems began last summer when the nation’s economic sluggishness led to a decline in state income. Gov. Jeb Bush sent out letters to state agencies, including the courts and related agencies, asking them to begin finding ways to cut spending. The September 11 terrorist attacks put a further dent in state revenues, because of a decline in sales taxes collected from tourists. State experts estimated on October 15 that the shortfall would be around $1.3 billion for the current budget year and $1.7 billion for next year. Aside from Bush’s efforts and his call for a special session, the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Fiscal Responsibility Council sent letters to all state departments, including judicial branch agencies, asking them how they would cut their budgets by five percent. A spokesman for the Senate committee said that is not an indication the legislature will make an across-the-board five-percent cut, but the information will help lawmakers figure out where to make cuts, both in the special session and in next year’s regular session which will draw up the 2002-03 budget. “I see no alternative but to impose a hiring freeze on all positions in the branch, with the one exception of judicial assistants,” Chief Justice Wells wrote in his memo to chief circuit judges. “Additionally, I am imposing a moratorium on the purchase of equipment or furniture. I also encourage you to make every effort to limit travel in your court and to curtail other routine expenditures.” Circuits where that imposes an undue hardship can apply to Wells for an exception. “I know these measure are difficult and will impede normal operations, but we have no other choice until we have a better understanding of what the reductions will be,” he wrote. While that memo was going out, Wells was also working on the reply to the legislative budgeting panels on how the courts could cut five percent of their budgets. His letter noted that the courts have a constitutional duty to provide access for all people to “a functioning and efficient court system.” “[M]y first response to you is that the judicial branch cannot meet your target of a five-percent reduction in the recurring current budget without serious harm to the courts’ constitutional responsibility,” Wells wrote. He recommended that no judgeships be cut and that none of the judgeships approved by the legislature earlier this year effective January 2 be delayed. Meeting the five-percent goal, Wells added, would require these cuts: $453,500 from the Foster Care Citizen Review Panels in seven counties; almost $1.2 million from the Juvenile Alternative Sanctions Program; $692,636 from Dade County’s Voices for Children program; almost $4.2 million from the guardian ad litem program; almost $1.7 million from the attorney ad litem program in Orange and Osceola counties; $200,000 from a Dade County truancy program; $90,262 from a guardianship monitoring program in Broward County; $992,760 from the indigency examination program; $325,000 from pre-indictment witness expenses; and $10,500 from the Drug Court Steering Committee. “We emphatically state that these trial court items should not be cut,” Wells added. “All but four of these items directly relate to children, which we all believe have to be a priority even in difficult fiscal periods. If we do not pay for these kinds of children’s services now, it is our definite experience that we will pay much more later. Certainly, the guardian ad litem program should be a priority.” Wells said if any of those programs were cut, it should be ones that benefit only local areas and statewide programs should be spared. He went on to say there were savings that could be made in the court budget by forgoing new funding in the 2001-02 budget and curtailing other programs. Those include: $72,382 in Supreme Court operating cost reductions; $454,365 in service reductions from the Office of the State Courts Administrator; $288,258 in cost reductions for the district courts of appeal; $1.2 million by not spending new funding for the guardian ad litem program; not spending $760,000 for improvements in the Pinellas and Brevard counties drug court programs; $371,796 from the foster care review programs in Clay, Duval, Nassau, Marion, and Manatee counties; and $200,000 from the children’s advocacy program in Hillsborough County. The chief justice concluded that while he wanted to be frank on why it would be harmful to cut five percent from the courts’ budget, “I want you to be expressly assured that I am committed to restricting funding requests to the activities necessary to provide services essential to the people of this state.” Among the circuit courts, the budget crisis has had a variable impact, depending at least somewhat on what programs are funded locally and which depend on state dollars. For example both Broward (17th Circuit) and Palm Beach (15th Circuit) counties have court psychology programs to which judges can refer parties when determining visitation in divorce cases and in dependency and delinquency cases. The state-funded Broward program has been cut, while the locally funded Palm Beach program is continuing. Seventeenth Circuit Chief Judge Dale Ross said the termination of that program has had two effects on the court. The psychological services have to be sent to outside sources at a greater expense, which means indigents can’t afford the services, and it takes longer to get the services and therefore slows the handling of cases. The circuit has also lost a guardianship investigator from its probate division and may lose a general master that is part of its family court plan, he said. Any further cuts could be catastrophic, Ross said, adding, “As you well know, the court doesn’t have programs. Ninety-six percent of the court’s budget is comprised of the judges’ and the assistants’ salaries; everything else is four percent. There’s really no room to cut.” If there are cuts, there will be “loss of service to the public and caseloads will back up,” Ross said. “What I hope doesn’t happen is when you have a single mother who desperately needs that child support that it doesn’t trickle down so she’s without that child support.” Fifteenth Circuit Chief Judge Edward Fine said cuts to non-court programs can have an impact on courts. He noted that a Department of Corrections pretrial intervention program that kept 1,800 people out of jail has been cut, which could place a greater burden on the courts. And he’s concerned the current budget crisis is the precursor of a much bigger problem when, under mandate of a constitutional amendment passed in 1998, the state is required to pick up a larger share of court funding no later than July 2004. He said the 15th Circuit has gotten a variety of private and federal grants and county funding for programs that not only help the courts function more efficiently but also improve services to residents. Those include such things as a two-year, $400,000 grant to create an elder court center to serve the county’s 300,000 people who are 60 or older, a federal grant to set up a drug court, and a county-funded program that has a social worker/certified mediator meet with divorcing couples who are having difficulty over child custody. “People come in,” Fine said of the latter program, “and she’s been able to resolve 80 to 90 percent of the problems right on the spot. That takes zero judge time.” Most circuits similarly have a variety of specialized programs, many with non-state funds, to meet unique local needs that might not be funded, not because of a tight budget but because the legislature might not even notice them, he said. “My worry is not that there is a budget cut; it’s more that we’re going to be below their radar screen on things that if they knew about, they would fund, even with a budget cut,” Fine said. “We’re rooted a lot deeper into the community than just adjudicating cases. The legal system is a lot more involved than even people who work in it everyday are aware of. We have all of these little specialized programs. They’re not just do-good things, they serve important social needs.” Aside from direct reductions that could come in court funding, Fine said some cuts to other state agencies have affected the courts. He noted the Department of Corrections has reduced the number of probation officers, which means that officers are no longer in every court. Consequently, he said, when a judge sentences a defendant to probation, an officer is not always there to immediately process that person. In some cases, the defendant has been ordered to report on his own to the probation office for processing. Judge Charles Mitchell, acting chief judge of the Fourth Circuit, said the hiring freeze had been implemented there, but the budget crisis had not otherwise affected court operations. Like Judges Fine and Ross, he was worried that the legislature’s cuts would hit support programs like the guardians ad litem or the drug court. “We are concerned about the support programs we have worked very hard over the years to get in place and work very well,” Mitchell said. “It’s very difficult to cut our budget because we cut programs if we do.” The situation may be even more critical for state attorneys and public defenders. Of their state budgets, 95 percent or so goes directly to salaries. “We have been affected,” said Third Circuit State Attorney Jerry Blair, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “Our [association] Education Committee met last week and we have eliminated some seminars. “Virtually every state attorney office has implemented a policy limiting travel for training and other purposes,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, out-of-state travel has been eliminated by all of the offices.” Further cuts “are ultimately going to have to come out of dollars that were intended for salaries,” Blair added. “That will come either from furloughs or layoffs.” The timing, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, also couldn’t be worse, he said. “With all of the emphasis on public safety, I don’t think local law enforcement agencies will be cutting back on their activities. Most of these cases are going to be in the state system, and we’re going to be allocating fewer state resources to deal with them.” Babb, the Florida Public Defenders Association president, agreed. He said with U.S. attorneys offices likely devoting more time to anti-terrorism cases, other cases are likely to wind up in state courts. “We have 95 percent of our budget statewide in salaries,” he said. “And we anticipate if we have to take substantial cuts, we’ll have to tell people on our staffs, ‘Here’s the work and it’s increasing, but we don’t want you to come to work a couple days a month.’” Like state attorneys, public defenders have also cut training costs, and Babb said he’s concerned that, with ever more complex laws, there will be more errors that will lead to appellate courts ordering new trials. Another worry, Babb said, is last year, with Gov. Bush’s support, the legislature approved salary boosts for public defender and state attorney staff. That was important because of high attorney turnover as private sector pay rose and public sector compensation failed to keep pace. Those increases are scheduled to go into effect in January — unless they are cut as part of the budget crisis. Those incentives, Babb said, helped both recruit new attorneys and retain existing ones. “We are anticipating that if that is. . . withdrawn, the legal staffs in public service are going to see a mass exit,” he said. “And that affects public safety.” The crisis could also affect county governments. Babb said public defenders, if they have inadequate staff to provide competent representation, must withdraw from cases, with counties picking up the bill. That already happens in five circuits, he said, the most notable being Miami-Dade County which pays the salaries for 82 attorneys in the 11th Circuit Public Defender’s Office. “If everybody else is put into that situation, then counties are in somewhat of a predicament because these costs are unexpected and unbudgeted, and some counties are already at the cap in their millage,” Babb said. “How are they going to pay for this if they haven’t anticipated it was coming?” Babb has communicated these and other concerns to Bush in letters responding to requests to find savings. In an August 10 letter, he summarized the situation as: “Since this time last year, our workload has been increased by the certification and funding of 36 new judges, by more Jimmie Ryce cases, and by the 10-20-Life and prison release reoffender laws, just to mention a few of the factors. Our attorneys’ caseloads remain dangerously overloaded, but we were not granted any new positions last session. In short, because our work continues to grow along with the responsibilities attached thereto, we simply cannot identify budget cuts without compromising our ethical and professional responsibilities.”last_img read more

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