Alms for the Poor

Cash-strapped public defenders fire back at critics.

If you think budget cuts at your office suck, try being a Miami-Dade public defender. Thanks to shrinking state court funds — down $44 million in the past two years — these burnt-out servants of the poor, tired, huddled masses are crunching about 500 cases each at any given moment, which is four times as many as Broward public defenders.

So it doesn't go over well when the opposition starts offering a few friendly penny-pinching pointers for the new year.

In a recent Miami Herald article, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle scoffed at what Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer characterized as "a crisis" that had "reached its breaking point." Rundle's suggestion: Stop spending so much time defending poor folks' misdemeanor cases. She added, "We've all had to deal with budget cuts."

Affronted attorneys then came up with a little lesson on frugality for the prosecutor: Quit asking for jail on silly marijuana and petty theft charges. Says courthouse blogger and justice system watchdog Rumpole: "The reality is that outside of repeat DUI convictions, there are almost no misdemeanor cases that result in jail. However, the SAO strings everyone along, kowtowing to cops or complaining witnesses on ridiculous cases." In other words, if the State Attorney's Office didn't ask for jail time on minor pot charges and the like, the public defenders wouldn't have to spend so much time on misdemeanor cases.

Indeed, for all the heinous and weird crime Miami-Dade endures, 50 percent of the cases public defenders handle are misdemeanors. The small-time stuff ends up weighing down an already time-strapped pack of litigators. Adds Brummer: "I expect it to get much worse very rapidly." Riptide would offer a joint to ease the stress, but we hear county jail blows, and bail bonds totally aren't in our budget this year.

 
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