The reason for the change, lawmakers said, is that the amount of additional taxpayer money being paid to private lawyers was regularly increasing.
In the fiscal year ending in 2009, according to a Legislative analysis, the state overspent by $1 million the amount it pays to private defense lawyers. By the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, it had overspent by $3.8 million.
Through the first 11 months of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the state paid $6.5 million over its original budget of $3 million, records show.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the chair of the budget subcommittee on criminal and civil justice appropriations, said that keeping conflict legal costs down is key because overruns are taken from the court budget itself.
Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, acknowledged that $2,500 for a first-degree murder case is “ridiculous,” but said the defense bar needs to present lawmakers a better solution to keeping conflict legal costs down.
“We have a huge problem and I honestly don’t know how to fix it,” she said. “It’s really going to be incumbent on defense attorneys to come up with a better plan.”
So what happens if no one signs up to be part of the pool of lawyers that accept the flat rates?
The current group of lawyers, which in Miami-Dade equals 150 attorneys, will still be appointed to represent the poor, but only after the system has given the limited registry lawyers a shot.
In an uncertain economy, the FACDL expects some lawyers to nevertheless sign up for the limited registry anyway, aiming to earn money through volume and plea bargaining cases quickly.
That worries some critics, who say those lawyers will shortchange their clients on the amount of time they spend on their cases.
“In any budgetary crisis, even when constitutional implications are involved, it creates the possibility that there will be some opportunists who may take advantage of the situation — to the detriment of their clients,” said Jude M. Faccidomo, the president of FACDL-Miami.