Budget cuts force tough decisions on prosecutors
Published: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.
As budgets shrink, Florida’s state attorneys are searching for ways to cut their expenses. That often means weeding out minor cases.
“I have the discretion to prosecute or not prosecute anything that comes in,’’ State Attorney Bill Cervone said. “If I have to concentrate on the violent crime as opposed to something petty, that’s where my resources will go.
“We have cut what we can without having to sacrifice cases. If there is much of an additional cut, some things aren’t going to get done in a timely fashion, and some things are simply not going to get done at all,” he said.
In the 8th Circuit that Cervone oversees, 43 percent of the arrests made are dismissed each year. Roughly 10 percent of those, more than 1,400 cases a year, are dropped for insufficient evidence.
Cervone has a list of 71 categories for classifying cases that are dropped. Money is not one of them, but some cases are dropped simply because it is not worth the cost of pursuing them, he said.
And Cervone is not alone.
Fifth Circuit Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway, whose circuit includes Marion County, said budget cuts in recent years have led to the loss of eight assistant state attorneys. The cuts were made in the county court division, which is primarily misdemeanors.
As a result, the office has become much more selective about the cases it prosecutes.
“There are some cases where even though the person is guilty, and there is evidence to prove it, we simply will not move forward,” Ridgway said.
“The primary deciding factor was public safety. Domestic violence and DUI — they still got prosecuted. Cases like disorderly conduct — if they were fairly minor — those kinds of cases might very well not get prosecuted. That was the way we had to go about governing our cases.”
He recalled a recent case in which money was a deciding factor on whether to proceed with prosecution.
“We had a guy who was arrested on disorderly conduct — very minor — and the guy was scheduled for heart surgery the next week. It was going to cost the county $50,000. We dropped those charges and got him out of jail,” he said.
“I am part of a system,’’ Ridgway said, “and the whole system is influenced at times by what we do.’’
Williston Police Chief Dennis Strow previously worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in the 5th Circuit.
Strow said a system for weeding out cases before an arrest is made that is used in the 5th Circuit could help reduce the police department’s costs.
Strow said he plans to discuss with Cervone a procedure in which certain types of crimes — say, someone is hit by a neighbor in an altercation — generate a police report instead of an arrest. It is up to a victim to contact the State Attorney’s Office to pursue the case.
“I think if we did that over here, there would be a lot less files in his office,” Strow said. “We could still move forward with it ourselves, but it makes for a more streamlined operation. I’m looking at taking some steps out of the process and lightening our workload some.”
Cervone said other state attorneys have procedures similar to those described by Strow.
In some circuits, he said, police will give a victim instructions to contact prosecutors within 24 hours to pursue a case. If not, the matter is dropped.
Circuits in some urban areas station prosecutors at police departments 24 hours a day to immediately screen cases and make decisions on whether to proceed.
“The theory is, we would rather tell you ‘do not bother’ up front than create the paperwork after which we say, ‘Don’t bother, it’s not legally there,’ ” Cervone said.
“Logistically, there is no way that I think we could ever make that work here. I don’t have the manpower to have somebody to sit there all day long, whose job it is to meet with cops from the previous 24 hours to review what they did and decide what they are going to do about it.”
In the 2nd Circuit, based in Tallahassee, no personnel have been cut and the office is making decisions on whether to prosecute a case just as it was before the revenue downturn.
However, the office will make decisions to try to get inmates who may be sentenced to lengthy time in the Leon County Jail to get sentenced to a state prison instead because of jail overcrowding.
“We do try to utilize different types of resources, but we definitely are not going to dismiss a case and say because it’s a third-degree felony or a misdemeanor, we are not going to worry about this anymore, that it’s too piddly to mess with,” said Amy Lee, unit supervisor for the 2nd Circuit.
“I know some of the larger circuits, especially down south,’’ she said, “if your car gets stolen, too bad.”