CRIMINAL JUSTICE; Skimping on Justice

Article excerpt

Most of the attention on Jacksonville's crime problem focuses on the police, especially the need for more of them.

Little attention is focused on an equally important part of the criminal justice system: prosecutors, public defenders and the courts.

These offices have seen funding cuts recently, which is jeopardizing the ability of the justice system to function properly.

Public Defender Bill White says funding has not kept up with caseloads. Caseloads for public defenders are so high that there are serious concerns that clients are receiving proper representation. And justice is being delayed as a result.

The American Bar Association says that a lawyer should not accept more employment than can be handled speedily and effectively.

White said that some attorneys handling misdemeanor cases had over 1,400 cases in fiscal year 2006-2007. State and national standards call for a maximum caseload of 400.

POUND FOOLISH

In some cases, appointed attorneys cost the taxpayers even more, so cutting the budget of the Public Defender's Office is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

There is an ethical concern to this overload, as well.

The Public Defender's Office has some outstanding career attorneys who help train the newcomers, White said. But the funding crisis places all of that in jeopardy.

"Telling lawyers that they will not receive a raise and that the only hope for any reward for their labor is a $1,000 gross bonus this year is a formula for creating a mass exit of good lawyers," White wrote in a letter to state Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

The same can be said for prosecutors. State Attorney Harry Shorstein said that there is a disconnect with the funding process. Funding comes from the state, which removes much local involvement and representation.

He said that about 97 percent of the budget in his office is salaries. He has increased the use of paralegals. And he has cut pay to about $40,000 for some starting attorneys in order to increase numbers in the office. But the low salaries inevitably lead to high turnover, so that some attorneys leave after only a few years of training.

You can't blame them, especially when many young attorneys carry heavy college debt loads. …