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'A startling situation': Public Defender's Office struggling to keep attorneys

Public Defender's Office
Posted at 9:58 PM, Nov 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-16 10:08:28-05

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Southwest Florida is feeling the impact of a nationwide issue: an attorney shortage. The Public Defender's Office for the 20th Judicial District spoke with Fox 4 about the retention problems, and how this could impact you.

Every day, someone accused of a crime sits inside of a courtroom. If they cannot afford a lawyer, they can be appointed a public defender. However, finding the lawyers to do that is a problem in some areas.

The 20th Judicial District represents Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades counties with 60% of the cases starting in Lee County. The office is run by Kathy Smith, the public defender.

She manages 141 employees; 80 are attorneys. She says it's not hard to convince people to work in Florida, but there are still some roadblocks.

"My big issue is retention of those people," Smith said. "This is a tough job."

The retention issue is something we're seeing across the country. Smith says the reason behind the problem in her office comes back to money.

"The problem is that the way the budget works, every lawyer that I hire at $65,000 the Legislature only gives me $50,000 to find the position," she said.

She takes more out of her budget and offers around $60,000 to $65,000, though many cannot afford to live off of that. About 90% of her $12 million budget goes to salaries.

"Last year, probably my most difficult office to keep staffed fully was Collier County, because the cost to live in Collier County housing-wise is very high," Smith explained.

Staffing isn't too tight at her office, but at the State Attorney's Office, it's a different story.

According to a spokesperson, they have a little more than 105 lawyers with 11 openings. Since 2020, a little more than 62 people have left the office.

In Smith's office, she says they are only looking for one felony attorney, but the impact has a domino effect.

"Whenever you take a lawyer away, there’s more work for other people," Smith said.

While it may seem like Smith's Office is in a good spot, it hasn't always been that way.

"Last year we had about 25% turnover," she said. "I think I offered 14 positions and I had about 65% of the people pass the Bar."

Smith believes more cash from the Legislature would help the crisis.

"We are also asking that $50,000 base salary be raised to $75,000," she said.

With higher pay, Smith says she would be able to retain attorneys. While it may seem like just a court issue, Smith says this shortage impacts far beyond the bench.

"If we’re representing people and we don’t have the skill level to do it, you run the risk of having innocent people go to prison," she said.

On the State Attorney side, she says victims and survivors of crimes may not get justice or restitution.

"It’s a startling situation of what could happen," Smith said. "They really love doing the work, but we just have to be able to pay them a fair salary."