Gideon Alert: former Florida Chief Justice speaks out against privatization of services

BY David Carroll on Friday, April 23, 2010 at 10:17 PM

In today’s Miami Herald, former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan has penned an op-ed opposing a proposal - currently before the state legislature - to privatize a portion of the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s caseload at a rate of $700 per case.  

Right to counsel services in Florida are delivered primarily through staffed circuit public defender offices headed by elected public defenders. The state picks up 100% of funding for services, but provides no oversight for the adequacy of services delivered with tax-payer dollars. 

In 2008 the public defender office in Miami-Dade County, suffering from ever-increasing caseload levels even while facing deep budget cuts, sued the court for workload relief. The office said at that time that they could not continue to accept more and more clients to represent, without additional attorneys to represent them.  Because the legislature was not providing funding to hire additional lawyers, the public defender office’s only recourse was to ask courts not to appoint them in additional cases. 

The current legislative proposal aims to hire a private law firm to represent all 3rd degree felony cases in Miami-Dade County – approximately 20,000 cases each year.  The fee to be paid to the law firm would be taken from the current budget of the Public Defender.  Rather than improving the situation for representation of indigent defendants in Florida, this proposal means more money will be spent to provide representation to a smaller number of clients.  Finally, as former Chief Justice Kogan points out, under the current system, the elected official who heads the Miami-Dade office is answerable to the voters for the quality of representation provided.  The proposed practice would result in untrained, inexperienced and unsupervised attorneys representing a great number of the state’s indigent population.  Private lawyers would answer to no one except their legislative patrons. Consequently, the accountability for the quality of indigent defense services would be effectively removed.