Prosecutors & public defenders face budget cuts amid COVID-19 backlog

Nelson & Cofer say budget cuts would exacerbate growing caseloads

After six months without jury trials, the court system has added more than 900 cases to its backlog. Now, nearly 4,000 cases are either waiting to go to trial or be resolved in another way.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every week, clerks in the Duval County courthouse tally up the pending felony cases. Before the pandemic, caseloads at the Public Defender’s Office were packed.

But after six months without jury trials, the court system has added more than 900 cases to its backlog. Now, nearly 4,000 cases are either waiting to go to trial or be resolved in another way.

“We had been getting in a good area as far as pending felony cases,” Public Defender Charlie Cofer said. “But when COVID-19 hit and the Florida Supreme Court basically shut down the running of our courts, It just changed everything.”

In March, when Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a State of Emergency, the state Supreme Court ordered courts to suspend jury trial proceedings and freeze defendants' rights to a speedy trial.

Although that move likely helped limit the spread of COVID-19, it also increased the criminal case backlog by 30 percent in Duval County.

“It’s very frustrating when people, especially those who remain in custody — and a large number of the felony clients remain in custody — if they are told they are to remain in custody, they no longer have speedy trial rights," Cofer said. "And the courts really cannot provide them with a jury trial.”

Latricia McCormick’s 19-year-old son is still in Jacksonville’s pre-trial detention facility after two years of waiting for a trial date. He doesn’t qualify for expedited release because the charges he’s facing, armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a juvenile, are too serious.

McCormick, who believes her son is innocent, is concerned about his health as hundreds of inmates and corrections officers in the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. “I believe he should be home,” she said.

State attorneys, lawyers and public defenders worked to resolve cases through plea deals and through virtual court hearings. But each week cases were being filed quicker than they could be resolved, records show.

Besides a growing caseload, the Public Defender’s Office and State Attorney’s Office were required to submit plans to the state in August to show what their operations might look like with significant budget cuts in place.

Cofer said the cuts would reduce his office’s budget by more than $1 million, and he noted that the state has already withheld 3 percent of his office’s budget.

The State Attorney’s Office was asked to detail the impact of an 8.5 percent budget reduction for the next fiscal year. The agency estimated that would result in a loss of more than $2.8 million in funding, which would require the elimination of 18 assistant state attorney positions, 10 investigators and 3.5 clerks.

DOCUMENT: View the State Attorney’s Office analysis of an 8.5 percent budget cut

The cuts have not been enacted yet, but it causes great concern—particularly in view of the backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Attorney’s Office plans to work with lawmakers and others to preserve current funding levels.

“An 8.5% reduction to our current budget would be devastating — it would reduce our workforce as caseloads remain static, resulting in less time and resources that we strive to devote to each case," State Attorney Melissa Nelson said. "We will continue to work with our local delegation to avoid this outcome by advocating to remain at current budget levels next year.”

Like Nelson, Cofer indicated a budget cut would force him to reduce staffing.

“Most of our budget is based on salary — attorneys and support staff," he said. “And when you have the combined situation of the huge backlog in cases with the potential you are going to have to work on that backlog in really, really significant budget cuts, it’s not a good situation.”

“I don’t like the concept of cutting people or making them do furloughs, because that reduces our ability to cut into the back log of COVID-19 cases.”

The potential budget cuts to the Public Defender’s Office and State Attorney’s Office come as jury trials and grand jury hearings are set to resume after a six-month hiatus.

The Duval County Clerk of Court has sent out 150 summonses for jury service on Oct. 5, according to court officials. It will be the first-time jurors have been inside the Duval County courthouse since the beginning of the pandemic.

Unlike before, there are additional outs for jurors impacted by COVID-19. Jurors will receive forms asking if they have symptoms of coronavirus, are awaiting test results or have been in close contact with a known positive case.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.