Florida Law Damages Criminal Defense Practices

For decades, private defense attorneys have represented all the people who couldn't afford a lawyer but had a conflict of interest with the public defender's office. Not any more.

Against private attorneys' wishes, Gov. Charlie Crist approved funding for a revised model that will send most of those cases to a new cadre of government lawyers housed in five regional offices around Florida.

The aim is to save the state money. But "Creating a new bureaucracy never saves money," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

Starting Oct. 1, the regional offices will handle criminal conflicts, guardianship and child dependency cases.  This assumes that all indigent people have cars or a way to get to the regional offices.

Private attorneys will lose cash flow from conflict cases, some of which brought them $950 and took less than a day to resolve. Senate staff estimated that 80 percent of the criminal conflicts and child dependency now handled by private attorneys will be assigned to the regional offices.


Critics of the bill argue that the new offices of criminal conflict, much like the current special public defender program, will be severely underfunded and destined for failure.  Each office will be run by a regional counsel who is appointed by the governor for a four-year term. In the 2nd District Court of Appeal, that person will earn $80,000 per year to supervise attorneys in a 14-county district. By comparison, the elected public defenders who oversee indigent cases in the sane circuits earn $153,000 annually.

Critics say the biggest losers will be defendants in the most serious cases - capital crimes that carry a death sentence or life in prison as punishment. They argue the staff at the regional conflict offices won't be large enough or experienced enough to handle those trials and appeals.

Assigning high-stakes cases to overworked attorneys who are spread out across large geographic areas is a recipe for disaster, private attorneys say. Poor representation on the front end of a case leads to costly appeals later.

"This is not something that can be done on the cheap, " said Jeffrey Harris, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who is president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "When you're sick and you have a heart attack, you don't go looking for the cheapest doctor. You look for the best doctor."

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