Early Case Resolution Program on hold because of loss of attorneys in Public Defender’s Office

Court-related issues among topics addressed during County Commission budget workshops

Public Defender Larry Eger addresses the commissioners on June 22. News Leader image

In late February 2020, the Sarasota County Commission approved the creation of an Early Case Resolution Program with an annual operating cost of $297,684. The goal was for an assistant state attorney and a public defender to meet on a routine basis to review new, low-level felony cases, in an effort to pinpoint those that could be resolved more quickly.

At the time of that discussion, the members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission anticipated that 600 people would be served in the first year, with cases being closed in less than 30 days, on average.

The funding for the initiative was to be split between the State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office.

The program was set to start on Oct. 1, the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year. Its ultimate goal was to reduce the population in the county jail. Then-Sheriff Tom Knight had warned the commissioners on a number of occasions that the number of people in the jail continued to be a challenge for his staff, as the department sought not to exceed the facility’s operating capacity.

However, because of initiatives implemented last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Defender Larry Eger pointed out to the County Commission during his July 1, 2020 budget presentation, the jail population was remaining lower than usual — as The Sarasota News Leader reported.

In advance of an Oct. 21, 2020 update to the commissioners on various jail diversion initiatives, staff noted in a memo, “Due to closure of the courts and delay in case processing caused by COVID-19, criminal justice stakeholders determined at the Jail Diversion Workgroup meeting on August 27, 2020, to table [the Early Case Resolution Program] and to revisit implementation in six months.”

This February 2020 graphic offers details about the Early Case Resolution Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

This year, when Eger again appeared before the board members for his annual budget presentation — on June 22 — he talked of a different reason for an even longer potential delay in the start of the Early Case Resolution Program: “We’ve lost a number of attorneys [because of the pandemic].”

Several had retired, he noted, while two had moved.

His primary emphasis with staffing, Eger told the commissioners, is to make certain attorneys can represent individuals who are accused of crimes.

“We do not see [the new program] being operational for at least several more months, if at all,” Eger added.

The delay in the implementation of it would save the county “roughly $150,000,” Eger pointed out.

Commissioners did not ask Eger for further details on the subject, and State Attorney Ed Brodsky of the 12th Judicial Circuit did not make a budget presentation to the board during its two days of workshops last week.

Eger’s remarks were among numerous updates that the commissioners heard from county constitutional officers and directors of county departments on June 22 and June 23. And he was not the only one to mention ramifications of the pandemic.

The clerk of court’s observations

This graphic provides details of some of the work of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller. Image courtesy Clerk of Court Karen Rushing

During her June 22 budget presentation, Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, told the board members, “It’s been a rough year. It was scary times for everyone.”

She added, “All of our employees came every single day to this building and to the courthouse.” (The workshop was being conducted at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.)

“They handled essential operations,” she said of her employees, noting that attorneys did not stop filing court cases, with the exception of evictions and foreclosures, per an Executive Order that Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed.

Nonetheless, Rushing pointed out, because court operations are fee-based, “One-third of the staff was let go during the COVID situation because the fees did drop.”

For example, she said, traffic citations “were at a very low amount … so there were no resources to pay the staff.” The fees from those citations, she added, cover “a lot of the operation.”

This graphic provides data about deeds and mortgages handled by the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller. Image courtesy Clerk of Court Karen Rushing

During her remarks, Rushing also provided the commissioners a number of statistics:

  • This year, her staff converted 628,226 official records to microfilm and created images of 18,769,695 official records.
  • The number of deeds filed in the county in 2020 exceeded the number of mortgages. “We do see cash transactions happening throughout the county,” Rushing pointed out.

The deeds in the 2020 fiscal year totaled 31,790, while the total number of mortgages was 23,829, according to a slide Rushing showed the commissioners.

  • The 2005 fiscal year was “sort of the heyday” for recordings and sales, Rushing noted, referring to the period before the Great Recession began. For the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1, Rushing said she anticipated that the number of deeds, mortgages and judgments her staff will record will be close to the 2005 level.

In 2005, Rushing’s staff recorded 286,591 documents. For the 2020 fiscal year, the total was 179,976. The figure projected by the end of this fiscal year is 220,586.

This graphic provides more data on foreclosure cases. Image courtesy Clerk of Court Karen Rushing

“Population doesn’t necessarily drive activity in this office,” she pointed out.

  • Because of the foreclosure restrictions during much of the pandemic, the number of cases Rushing’s staff had handled in the current fiscal year, up to her June 22 presentation, was 79, another slide showed. In 2009, during the Great Recession, the total was 8,566. In the 2020 fiscal year, it was 234.

Referring to 2009, Rushing added, “It was an enormous stress on the court system.”

Court Administration

After Rushing completed her presentation, the commissioners heard from Kim Miller, the trial court administrator for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

Kim Miller. Image courtesy 12th Judicial Circuit Court

“Courts never stopped operating,” Miller said of the situation during the pandemic. However, she added, “We did a lot of things remotely.”

June 21, she noted, was the first day people were allowed back in court facilities without masks or social distancing restrictions. “It was a big celebration for us.”

The 12th Judicial Circuit, Miller reminded the board members, covers Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, with five facilities operating. Those in Sarasota County are the County Justice Center and the Lynn Silvertooth Judicial Center, both on Ringling Boulevard in Sarasota, as well as the court operations at the county’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.

And speaking of the latter facility, Miller said, “We’re anticipating some needs for next year,” in regard to her budget, primarily because of new staffing that will be necessary. “We’re going from three kind of small courtrooms [to] two-story buildings.”

Along with courtrooms, she pointed out, space will be provided for a lab for urine testing, mediation rooms and a digital recording office. “Right now,” Miller noted, all of those operations are handled in North County.

After the building has been completed and staff can get to work, Miller continued, she would have a better idea of needs for the 2023 fiscal year. “Our worst-case scenario,” she said, would be a request for hiring five new employees.

Miller showed the board members a photo taken the previous week as work continues on the new courthouse facilities in Venice. “It’s coming together much quicker than I think any of us thought it would be.”

This slide shows the new South County Courthouse construction in mid-June. Image courtesy Sarasota County