Florida’s court system is overburdened with too many cases and too few dollars. The state’s DNA lab is close to running dry without proper funding, leaving many defendants at risk of having justice denied.
In its final report released last week, the Florida Innocence Commission addressed the issues of eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and the lack of evidence preservation, among other mishaps that can wrongfully convict innocent people. Among the recommendations:
• Having photos be shown to a witness one at a time, instead of a “six-pack” lineup, and shown by someone who does not know which photo is the suspect.
• A law requiring police to record all in-custody interrogations.
• Letting juries know when a witness in a trial is a jailhouse informant to be rewarded with a shorter sentence for testifying.
All are solid reforms, but without adequate financial support to the courts all of the commission’s work will end up on a shelf. The courts, the panel reminded Floridians, are strapped. After more than half a decade of Tallahassee cutting court budgets, the plea for money keeps falling on deaf ears.
“We cannot avoid the reality that a number of the problems in our system of justice deal with the issue of adequate funding,” wrote Orange-Osceola Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr., chairman of the commission.
The commission was created in 2009 by the state Supreme Court to reduce wrongful convictions in the wake of DNA testing. Since the establishment of the commission, a dozen men have been exonerated from their convictions.
Any price is a small price to pay for saving an innocent person from a prison sentence — or death. A hasty trial without solid DNA testing or a weak investigation shortchanges the defendant, and due process is left in the dust.
Senate Bill 1960, a plan that creates an exclusive pool of private lawyers paid on fixed rates, passed the Legislature in March in an attempt to help public defender’s offices so short-changed in funding that they can’t give adequate, much less quality, representation to impoverished clients.
That “fix” is far from perfect — indeed, it’s justice on the cheap, which is no justice at all.
As the innocence commission points out in its report, few if any high-quality, experienced lawyers will work for a low flat fee.
Lawyers who participate in the “limited registry” aren’t poised to explore every avenue of justice with pay as low as $750 to defend a client facing a third-degree felony. Such low fees (they do not apply in death penalty cases) have the potential of creating botched defenses, forcing new trials and costing the court system more money. The problem circles back to a system prone to sloppy slip-ups and resulting costly mistakes.
The Florida Innocence Project, which works separately and independently from the Florida Innocence Commission, has pushed for years to have law enforcement and prosecutors use DNA to build their cases. The commission’s thorough report gives credence to the Innocence Project’s good work.
Like every other governmental institution, the courts have taken a blow from the state budget’s belt-tightening. Though funds are scarce, the volume of cases continues to grow with the population.
Florida’s incarceration rate hovers above the national average, and state courts are becoming processing mills with justice put on the backburner. Lost in Florida’s justice system are those without access to DNA testing and a guarantee of a fair trial. That must end.