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Florida’s budget woes forced the state court system to begin laying off employees last week and to consider imposing furloughs in the public defender’s office, the probation office and other departments. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Wells imposed a hiring freeze throughout the courts last week, except for judicial assistants; called for a moratorium on buying equipment and furniture; and eliminated almost all travel. “As you know, the state of Florida is facing a revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year,” Wells said in a memo sent Thursday to chief judges, trial court administrators and marshals. “The judicial branch is being asked to examine its budgets and identify reductions that could be made. It is a virtual certainty at this point that substantial cuts will occur.” Even before the World Trade Center disaster, the state’s revenue-estimating conference projected a $673 million budget shortfall as the slowing economy reduced tax revenues. The situation has gotten worse since Sept. 11, as tourism plummeted, taking sales tax revenues with it. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has yet to order state offices to lay off employees, but that could change after a much-anticipated second revenue-estimating conference this month. The conference, scheduled for a special meeting this month, consists of economists and state officials who usually meet only annually to predict the state’s income. But anticipating the worst, court officials already have begun paring their budgets and identifying potential cuts. Joseph Farina, chief judge in the Miami-Dade Circuit Court, imposed a hiring freeze two weeks ago and laid off between six and 10 court operations employees effective Monday, the start of the fiscal year. The only exception to the freeze: court interpreters, who are badly needed in diverse South Florida. The cuts could go deeper, warned Farina, adding that he would know more today, after a conference call among chief judges statewide. Broward Court Administrator Carol Ortman instituted a hiring freeze Thursday, after receiving Wells’ memo. She also must eliminate the court psychology program, administered by the county but funded by the state, which Gov. Bush redlined at the end of the legislative session. The 20-year-old program allowed judges to refer children and families for psychological testing in divorce and dependency cases. All 10 employees — eight psychologists and two social workers — are expected to be laid off in December. The Department of Corrections appears to be facing the biggest cuts, however, forcing it to eliminate courtroom programs it administers. The department’s 2002 budget calls for eliminating its entire pretrial intervention program, with 118 employees statewide. Under that program, the state drops charges against first-time offenders under some circumstances. The program kept 8,114 people out of jail last year, according to Joellyn Rackleff, a DOC spokeswoman. Disbanding the unit will save $4.4 million a year but could impose added costs if first-time offenders end up in prison. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Platzer said the program is definitely worthwhile. “A lot of these offenders don’t belong in jail. They need a wake-up call,” she said. “PTI takes care of a lot of cases that would otherwise clog up an overcrowded docket.” DOC also began paring back its court probation officers program last week. Court probation officers are assigned to a specific criminal courtroom, where they can process probation papers on the spot. Last week, the officers started leaving Miami-Dade and Broward county courtrooms at noon, acting as field probation officers the rest of the day. Administrative judges sent e-mails to all criminal judges to notify them to finish their calendar calls by noon. Broward Circuit Judge Ron Rothschild said he already felt the difference. Friday afternoon he ordered probation for a defendant — only to find “there was nobody there to process them.” Rothschild was left to hope the defendant will follow orders and show up at a probation office to fill out the necessary paperwork. “I depended on my court probation officers a lot. On the days that they were not in court, it would be a mess,” said Platzer, the Miami circuit judge who recently left the criminal division for family court. “Half the time, probation is backed up.” The in-court officers would frequently also act as liaisons, delivering messages to the judge for other probation officers. “Otherwise, all these probation officers would have to come to court, and when are they going to do their probation work?” said Platzer. The Miami-Dade public defender’s office is also bracing for cuts. All travel has been eliminated. And the office may furlough all 200 assistant public defenders for one or two days monthly, if the news from Tallahassee is even grimmer following the special revenue-estimating conference this month, said Public Defender Bennett Brummer. Brummer is concerned about whittling away an office already cut to the bone. But with 95 percent of his budget going to salaries, he doesn’t know where else to cut. Assistant public defenders are still awaiting salary adjustments — not raises — that were due in January. “Turnover in the last month, in the last six months, has been higher than ever before,” he said, with the office recruiting and training lawyers only to have them leave for better-paying jobs. “People are going to prison because of inadequate representation.” Officials with the Broward state attorney’s office are also waiting and worrying. “Although we have serious concerns about what will happen, we haven’t received any specific directives from the governor’s office,” said Monica Hofheinz, the office’s executive director. But as tax revenue continues to fall, all state offices are preparing for the worst. “This is a small glimpse of the future,” wrote Paul Backman, administrative judge in Broward Circuit Court’s criminal division, in a memo to criminal judges.

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