Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

County's Public Defender Itemizes Costs of Injustice

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

County's Public Defender Itemizes Costs of Injustice

Article excerpt

Byline: Tonyaa Weathersbee

Last week, Jacksonville Public Defender Bill White reminisced about the time he spared a man a possible 15-year prison term - and the taxpayers $300,000.

This guy, White said, had been arrested for burglary of a dwelling. He had been caught sleeping in an abandoned shack, on a night when temperatures had dipped into the 20s.

But he wasn't dangerous. He was just drunk and cold.

"He's intoxicated, he's poor, and all he could keep saying to me is 'I remember the newspapers.' I didn't know what he is talking about." White told members of the Times-Union's Editorial Board.

But he and his investigator soon found out what the man meant.

What they discovered was that he had wrapped himself in a pile of newspapers in that house, which had been abandoned for a decade. The owner of the property had grown weary of vagrants sleeping in it, White said.

But this guy was no burglar, because there was nothing in there to steal except, maybe, some old newspapers, he said.

"This guy didn't know what he had done, he didn't know what his crime was, and he was ready to plead to something," White said. "But it was an abandoned dwelling, which makes it not a dwelling since it hadn't been lived in for more than six years."

Because there was nothing inside to prove that his client intended to burglarize the place, White said, he was ultimately charged with trespass of a structure, which carries a maximum of 60 days. He was released after receiving credit for time served.

What White did wasn't being soft on crime. It was being smart on crime. Because if White's client had been sent away for 15 years, taxpayers would have been more broke than safe.

But now, it looks like Florida's public defender offices need some safekeeping themselves.

Because of legislative budget cuts, those offices are facing shortfalls that could force them to furlough staff and, as a result, not give each case the scrutiny it needs. In Jacksonville, White said, his office's budget has been cut by 2.6 percent.

"The reality on the ground is that if they don't give us some of the rollback, we may not be able to make payroll by the end of the year," he said. …

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