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US Public Defense Lawyers Struggle with Budget Cuts

As the U.S. recession cuts into government budgets across the country, some public agencies are struggling more than others. Several state-funded defense attorneys say they have fewer resources to handle the flood of clients accused of crimes or other offenses. Officials in Miami are looking for private attorneys to volunteer to help clear a small part of the backlog.

Ben Reiss left his job as an assistant public defender 10 years ago, in favor of a higher paying job with a top private law firm. That did not stop him from appearing in a Miami court recently to defend a teenager facing misdemeanor drug charges.

"This was a possession of marijuana case, and we had filed a motion to suppress evidence," said Reiss.

Reiss and his colleagues from the private firm Greenberg Traurig won the motion and convinced the judge to throw out the charges altogether. He said the lawyers were delighted to win the case, but their client was even more pleased.

"It took him about three seconds to realize the impact of what happened. And the look on his face was simply priceless," Reiss said.

The teen from a low-income home in Miami was not a typical client of a international law firm like Greenberg Traurig. Most indigent people facing charges use defense attorneys from state-funded public defender offices.
Miami Public Defender Carlos Martinez says attorneys in his office have been more and more overworked in the past two years.

"Our case loads kept increasing particularly in our felony division. They increased in a matter of four years 29 percent. At the same them, we started experiencing budget cuts since 2007, that have equaled approximately $3.6 million," he said.

Martinez says arrests are up because federal payouts have boosted police programs targeting illegal guns, drugs and gang activity. But similar funding was not sent to state prosecutors or public defenders to process court cases. In Miami, recent changes have forced the public defender to cut 30 attorney positions and curtail internships for law school students.

Now Martinez is expanding a pro bono program, where Ben Reiss and about two dozen other private attorneys are working misdemeanor and felony cases. He says the pro bono attorneys are helping in the crisis, but they are not the solution.

"No matter the number of attorneys there is no way we can completely fill the funding gap with just volunteer attorneys. There has to be some significant reform of the system," Martinez said.

The budget problems are not unique to Miami. Public defenders in Kentucky, Minnesota and Georgia say they are struggling with backlogs too. Advocates for public defenders say continued cuts may threaten the programs needed to provide justice for those accused of crimes and for the victims of crime.

Jeanne Baker represents the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says what is happening in Miami shows how difficult it is to ensure public funds are available for accused criminals.

"I believe on the state side there has been underfunding and under-recognition of the importance and need for funding public defense for the indigent for a long time," Baker said.

Baker says if public defender programs begin to fail for some clients, it would destroy the ability of the courts to ensure justice for all.

Rick Freedman, head of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Miami, says budget cuts could also wind up costing the state more money. He says public defenders who are overworked may not be able to provide an adequate defense for their clients.

"That defendant challenges in an appellate court and says I didn't have effective counsel. The case comes back, they have to do it all over again and spend more money," he said.

Freedman says spending more money now to help the public defender's office may ensure the courts can process cases right the first time.