One attempt at solving the indigent defense problem was the creation of a state agency made up of five offices to be called Offices of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel (“OCCCRC”) by the Florida Legislature in Chapter 2007-62. The idea was that full-time attorneys on a set salary in these new regional offices would theoretically solve at least part of the judicial appointment problem by taking on public defender cases where there was a conflict of interest (which is common in multi-defendant cases) — as well as supervising court-appointed attorneys in child dependency cases and assorted civil actions. Sounded good.
Truth is, the OCCCRC lawyers haven’t even been given a fair shake, they’ve been asked to play the game without a full deck of cards. The OCCCRCs aren’t even getting the basics to do their job.
For example, the Fourth District OCCCRC has complained that it doesn’t even have ordinary supplies and internet access for months at a time. In today’s world, how can an attorney represent a client effectively without internet access? Legal research, communication and filing with the courts, e-mail, etc. are all done over the internet. How any lawyer at the OCCCRC can practice law each day is a miracle in action, and my hat is off to them. No wonder there’s such a high turnover there.
And, adding insult to injury, these OCCCRCs are being sued. That’s right – they have become defendants in their own right. Apparently, several counties throughout Florida have taken the position that OCCCRCs are not “public defender offices” at all under Florida law. Using this legal argument, counties aren’t legally responsible to pay for the expenses of their local OCCCRC (pursuant to Article V, section 14 of the Florida Constitution).
In May 2009, a Boca Raton Circuit Court Judge agreed with 25 Florida counties and ruled that the legislation that shifted judicial costs from the state to the counties was unconstitutional. According to the Circuit Court, the Florida legislature failed to find “that the law fulfills an important state interest before attempting the cost shift.” This ruling now goes before the Florida Supreme Court, who has already heard arguments that the enacting language creating the agency was invalid and ruled that the OCCCRCs do pass constitutional muster.
Meanwhile, despite the lawsuits and the antiquainted working environment (do they even have computers? If so, how old are they?), some OCCCRCs just keep getting more and more work. Last year, the Third District OCCCRC was ordered by Judge Judge Stanford Blake of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit to take all new Class C felonies arising in Miami-Dade County, because the Public Defender there could not handle any more defendants because their caseloads were so high and their monies were being cut, too.
What are we talking about here? About 1500 new cases/month. Think about that. Fifteen hundred new cases a month to defend in a court of law, and you don’t have internet access. Right.
So, right now the OCCCRCs keep operating, lawyers doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given, and whether or not county coffers will have to pay for part of the OCCCRC budget costs is still a conflict worthy of Supreme Court review.
Next week: The Judges’ dilemma – they have to meet the mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright.