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Pinellas-Pasco public defender plans to not cover some cases

By  Chris Tisch, Times Staff Writer
 In print: Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Pinellas-Pasco public defender plans to not cover some cases

LARGO — Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said Tuesday that state budget cuts will force him to decline to represent hundreds of poor people arrested for minor crimes.

In an unprecedented move in Pinellas County, Dillinger said he won’t provide lawyers to a misdemeanor court division, meaning as many as 400 defendants a month would not get a lawyer though his office.

Budget cuts have forced Dillinger to cut $1.5-million from his $15-million budget even though his lawyers already have caseloads five times the amount recommended by a national advisory commission. Dillinger said 94 percent of his budget is salary and benefits.

Dillinger said the cuts are forcing him to cut about 20 positions, including lawyers, investigators and support staffers. About half the positions to be cut are lawyers.

Rather than spreading more cases around to fewer lawyers, Dillinger said he will simply refuse to staff a court division.

The Public Defender’s Office is required by law to represent people who can’t afford lawyers. It’s unclear how poor people would get lawyers if Dillinger’s office refuses cases.

"They need a lawyer. They are entitled to a lawyer," Dillinger said. "I just can’t provide it."

Chief Judge Robert Morris and Judge Henry Andringa, who oversees the division Dillinger plans to cut, will meet today to talk about the situation, said courts spokesman Ron Stuart.

Morris and court administrators also had to slash their budgets and must lay off employees.

"They’re concerned, but at the same time they’re sympathetic to the Public Defender’s Office because they’re in the same boat we’re all in," Stuart said.

Dillinger said if Andringa has to appoint private lawyers to handle the cases, it will cost three times as much as if his office were staffed to handle them.

Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer also plans to decline thousands of felony cases outside of first-degree murders and capital sexual batteries. The public defender in Broward is considering the same.

State Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, told the Miami Herald that Brummer is grandstanding "because the cuts weren’t that severe, and they can find better ways to deal with them."

Brummer has refused to accept cases three times before, which forced judges to appoint private attorneys. But each time the courts have said his constitutional responsibility to his clients trumped budget woes.

The Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office doesn’t plan to refuse cases and has not fired any lawyers, though the cuts hurt.

"We don’t like constantly being asked to do more with less," said Assistant Public Defender John Skye.

In the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando County, Public Defender Howard "Skipp" Babb Jr. said his office must cut seven positions, but he has no plans to refuse cases.

Interestingly, Dillinger in 2006 persuaded a judge to hold Lucy Hadi, then Department of Children and Families secretary, in contempt of court for failing to follow court orders by not removing mentally ill inmates from jail within the 15 days mandated by state law.

Hadi said she couldn’t move the inmates fast enough because of budget constraints.

Judge Crockett Farnell actually threatened to jail Hadi if she didn’t comply. The showdown eventually led the Legislative Budget Commission to approve more money for beds.

Dillinger said he hopes the commission will meet again to give him more money, too.

Chris Tisch can be reached at 727-892-2359 or [email protected]. Information from the Miami Herald is included in this report.