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4

Florida Judges Turn into Debt Collectors

As Tim Elfrink reports in this week's paper, the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office is so overworked and underfunded it has stopped accepting new third-degree felony cases, a move that may or may not be legal. In the meantime, the office is leaning on top-dollar corporate law firms to take on some of these cases.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that across the nation, courts are so strapped for cash they're turning to all sorts of innovative (and perhaps questionable) ways to keep the courthouse doors open, and that several states are looking to Florida as an example.

Specifically, as the Times reports, states such as Michigan and Georgia

are intrigued by Florida's aggressive system to collect court fines and

fees. "Unlike other creditors," the story reports, "they can throw

debtors in jail -- and they do, by the thousands." The article tells the

tale of Valerie Gainous, who in 1996 was convicted of writing bad

checks. She paid restitution, did community service, and thought she

had put the episode behind her. But then earlier this year, she received a

letter saying she still owed $240 in leftover court fees

and fines, and that if she didn't pay them, she would go to jail.

Across the nation, 25 state court systems have budget shortfalls. As a

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result, New Hampshire has suspended civil and criminal jury trials in

eight counties for a month, and Oregon will close its

courthouses every Friday for four months. As bad as things might be in Florida, it could be worse: Maine no longer stations security guards at

metal detector checkpoints in local courthouses.

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