Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cutting Budgets, Scaring People

After a week away, I returned and did something I probably won't do again. I read every day of the newspaper that was published while I was gone.

The news of the day, or week for that matter, is local governments setting budgets. Every city, county, village, is reeling with lower property values. Budget cuts in Miami-Dade County are to be $444 million.

The issue brings out the same tired debate: How do we keep doing the same thing with less money? How do we fund basic services (police, fire, trash pickup, libraries, etc...) and social services, and all the pet projects, capital projects, and keep paying salaries?

We can't. Everyone knows that, no one wants to discuss it.

In the criminal justice arena, the debate is simple: the minute governments start talking about budget cuts, do everything to scare the public into thinking that their "public safety" will be compromised.

Fear, works, everytime.

I know I'm a defense lawyer, and that anything I suggest is only to help criminals and attack the police, but this is my blog, so I'll write my suggestions anyway. (Cue the law enforcement talking points)

[1] Cease all speed traps and other planned traffic enforcement.

Speed kills, I know. But it really doesn't. Going 40 in a 30 in my neighborhood won't kill anyone more than going 20 in a 30 will. Going 90 on the expressway may kill someone, but there's not as many speed traps there as there are at that stop sign in the neighborhood where no one has ever stopped for 20 years. Enough.

[2] No one should be taken to jail for misdemeanors, except for domestic violence.

Yes, that includes DUI. I know, DUI is serious, the guy could have killed someone. But he didn't. Take him home, make him get a ride home, give him a promise to appear. What's the purpose of having a bunch of drunk people in jail for a few hours, except to satisfy the public's desire to see drunk people in jail?

Not a single other misdemeanor should require a night in jail at arrest.

[3] Remove all mandatory minimum penalties. All of them.

Mandatory minimum penalties are expensive. They cause more cases to go to trial, and have contributed to our aging prison population, which has exponentially increased prison health care costs.

Let's put the discretion back in the hands of prosecutors and judges. Victims can still have all the input they want.

[4] We can't prosecute everything. Let's start acting like it.

There is a county in Florida where 95% of all arrests are prosecuted. Why? What happened to looking at a case and saying, "yeah, he did it, but we have to prioritize how we spend our prosecution resources. I know "public safety."

Public safety refers to murder, rape, robbery, other violent crimes, DUI, and domestic violence (maybe I left something out). Public safety is not affected by selling flowers without a license, driving without commercial vehicle markings, peeing on the sidewalk, drinking in public, and other "get the homeless off the streets" crimes.

[5] Prosecutors need to "strongly encourage" legislatures to stop enacting new criminal offenses.

Every year, some prosecutor somewhere loses some case and drafts some law so when that case comes up again, he won't lose. Then we start prosecuting people for "battery on a lifeguard during a riptide."

We have plenty of laws. Too many.

[6] Stop sending everyone to jail for everything.

When I first became a public defender, I was told by a supervisor "some of our clients belong in jail." Some people belong in jail, but we have reached a point where probation and diversion is the exception. Why is that? I think it's to satisfy the public's thirst for jail. We're all paying for it, but no one seems to care. "Lock 'em up." OK, morons.

There is a move afoot to have more diversion options for first time drug offenders, but most of these "commissions" are filled with "former" everythings. Former judges, former prosecutors, former cops. Why is it that only "former" people have the guts to propose reasonable reforms to the system? We all know the answer.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com

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