Specialized Courts Could Fall to Transition; State Only to Pay for What's Essential
Tucker, Rich, The Florida Times Union
Byline: Rich Tucker, Times-Union staff writer
TALLAHASSEE -- As state legislators and county officials dance gingerly around the issue of who will pay for what parts of Florida's court system, the fate of a handful of specialized judicial programs is increasingly in doubt.
The court funding disagreement is largely semantic, based on a few words from the 1998 constitutional amendment titled "Revision 7" that mandated the state assume funding for "essential" court operations.
Drug courts, which divert non-violent drug offenders from jail sentences in favor of intensive treatment regimens, are one of the more prominent court programs in danger of extinction.
Other specialty court services, usually spawned to make courts more user-friendly and efficient, also may not receive state money. Those might include support staff at local law libraries or family law coordinators who provide free procedural guidance to people trying to handle their cases without hiring an attorney.
County representatives say the Revision 7 amendment means the state's responsibilities would include paying for those programs, thus lifting the funding burden off county shoulders. State officials, facing a tight budget this year and potentially in years to come, have emphasized the importance of a funding "partnership" with the counties in such endeavors.
"We are asking the counties to provide administrative support for these programs, [like drug court] while we would provide the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders," said Rep. Holly Benson, R-Pensacola. "We think there are a lot of innovative, positive structures at the local level, and we want that to continue."
Many speciality programs are designed to take defendants out of regular felony and misdemeanor courtrooms, where they often make repeat appearances. Even more specialized than drug courts are mental health courts for individuals whose criminal behavior stems, at least in part, from mental and emotional illness. Such programs primarily have been funded by counties and, in some cases, grants from law enforcement and the federal government to date. …