State budget cuts could affect courts

MANATEE -- Chief Judge Lee E. Haworth compares the administration of justice in the 12th Judicial Circuit to a high flying airplane.

Without a solid ground crew, the plane won’t fly.

In this case, the ground crew would be judicial assistants, case managers and others who don’t get the glory, but who are indispensable to criminal and civil cases.

It is these folks who are most at risk under Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to cut $4.6 billion from the state budget, and lay off 6,700 state workers, Haworth said.

“First off, I do not speak for the judicial branch -- these are my personal thoughts. When you choke off a court’s resources, you choke off the people’s access to justice,” said Haworth, who joined the circuit court bench in 1989.

The 12th Judicial Circuit covers Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

“The current proposal would bring an unprecedented level of inefficiency and would devastate the criminal and civil justice system,” Haworth said this week.

“I certainly support the need for a state to live within its means, but I think these proposals are heading us in the wrong direction,” he said.

Walt Smith, trial court administrator for the 12th Judicial Circuit, said circuit courts are largely funded by the state.

While it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who followed the Florida gubernatorial election, the cuts are what Scott promised, along with a pledge to reignite the state’s economy with the creation of hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs.

“It’s interesting to see the specifics,” Smith said. “A cut is a cut and we are scheduled to take a 13-14 percent cut over the two-year period,” Smith said.

The cuts come on top of earlier belt tightening, including a proposal to have state employees contribute to their pensions, a 15 percent cut in the work- force in 2007-08, and no raises for five years, Smith said.

“People feel strongly that they are being asked to contribute to pension funds when their salary is substantially lower than in the private sector,” Smith said.

“If we have to make more cuts we’ll make them, but we are down to the bone,” Smith said.

Budget cuts in judicial centers will have a radiating effect, Haworth said, calling it a potential drag on Scott’s plans to offer more economic incentives to business to spur job creation.

“Our state cannot have economic recovery without a healthy, well-funded court system,” Haworth said. “Courts are vital engines of economic recovery. It’s impossible for the state to regain its economic health without us being active players.”

When the court system begins prioritizing its cases, the criminal and family cases move to the front, ahead of civil cases.

“I am concerned we will be forced to send the civil cases to the back burner. It’s hard for me to understand how any businesses will want to relocate to Florida if the civil courts can’t bring business litigation to a reasonably prompt conclusion,” Haworth said.

“If this budget goes through anywhere close to what is being proposed, we will not be able to meet the needs of the people coming through the courthouse doors. We will lack the personnel who do the heavy lifting,” he said.

Another of Scott’s proposals would eliminate 1,690 jobs from the state prison system.

That concerns Sheriff Brad Steube who earlier this week said he would oppose anything that adversely affects programs like 10, 20, LIFE -- using a gun in the commission of a crime carries a 10-year prison term, firing the gun brings a 20-year sentence, and injuring or killing someone with a gun brings a 25-year to life sentence.

Steube also worries that the Florida law requiring convicted criminals to serve 85 percent of their sentences could be affected. Both of those laws made a serious dent in crime, he said.

Former Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells was the driving force behind the 85 percent law. Support for the law started in Manatee and spread across the state, Smith said.

The 85 percent rule became law to solve the problem of criminals serving only about one third of their sentence and then being released back into their communities.

The governor may be unaware of the history of the 85 percent law, Wells said, adding it grew out of a compromise with the Florida Legislature.

In exchange for dropping a constitutional amendment, the Legislature agreed to pass a statute toughening the rules for time served.

“Hopefully he will do some research on that,” Wells said.

“I wouldn’t be above traveling to Tallahassee and testifying before those committees,” Wells said. “It’s important not to repeat what was happening prior to 1995.”