We all know from watching television programs like Law and Order that when being read his rights, an accused criminal always learns, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” Amidst budget cuts and overworked attorneys, this constitutional guarantee is facing some challenges in the Miami-Dade area. How busy is the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office? Right now, 177 attorneys handle around 100,000 cases every year.
Public Defender Bennett Brummer said earlier this week that his office may begin to refuse some indigent clients who are referred to his office for representation. The cases likely to be denied would be those involving less-serious felonies, while first-degree murders and capital sexual batteries, as well as juvenile and misdemeanor cases, would still have guaranteed attorney coverage.
Brummer blames the problem on several factors. He places most of the fault at the doorstep of the state legislature, asserting that the politicians make grand statements about being tough on crime while cutting the budget necessary to meet such goals. Other problems include inexperienced lawyers, as the Public Defender’s office is often a first job out of law school, and a high turnover rate as attorneys leave for better-paying positions in private practice.
Since the right to counsel is protected by the Constitution, Brummer and his peers could face jail time if they refuse to accept cases. As University of Florida law professor Bob Dekle stated, ''The first showdown you're looking at is between the public defenders and the judge and how quick they can get out of jail after the judge puts them in jail for not accepting cases.'' With their resources stretched to the breaking point, Brummer believes his office may have no choice but to take such a dramatic step.
The right to an attorney who can insure your fair treatment through every step of the legal process is an essential component of our country’s judicial system. I hope that a solution can be found which provides counsel for the poorest among us while respecting the need to maintain a sensible workload for the attorneys who devote so much time and energy to the important role of public defender.