Hillsborough Public Defender and State Attorney agree on budget issues; disagree on juvenile sentencing

03/16/12 Janelle Irwin
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Children accused of committing heinous crimes are being tried as adults in Florida. Today at a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa luncheon, two lawyers from opposite sides of the argument squared off about the topic. Hillsborough County’s public defender and its state attorney politely presented the different ways they approach the debate.

Both Julianne Holt and Mark Ober are up for re-election. Neither is being opposed. They started off with a joke about sparring, followed it up a reconciliatory kiss and then politely gave opposing arguments on a host of issues plaguing the justice system. Holt, who is Hillsborough County’s public defender, argued that judges should have more discretionary power in courtrooms – especially when it involves a defendant who is a child.

“What you’d like to do is be able to have your client, your child client, be treated as an individual and be able to factually explain to the court why perhaps this particular child deserves a particular sentence as opposed to the judge having their hands tied and having to sentence a child to in accordance to whatever the law has required so I believe in the discretion of a judge.”

One of her arguments is that a suspect can be charged on something based on statutes. But she said situations aren’t always as cut and clear as a law.

“If you go into a home and burglarize it, go in a break in and arm yourself with a gun from inside the house – in other words, you’re stealing a gun from inside the house – now you’re an armed burglary charge that draws minimum mandatory because of the possession of a gun and exposes you to a tremendous prison sentence. In that particular situation, the court should have the discretion to craft something that takes into consideration what they did was break into a home. The fact that they stole a gun, should that be treated any differently than the fact that they might have stolen a ring that’s worth $3500.”

To an extent, state attorney Mark Ober agrees.

“You can’t rubber stamp this case and this case, nor can you rubber stamp the way that we would treat an individual because if you did that you would take away that human element.”

But that doesn’t mean he goes soft every time a pubescent kid finds himself on the docket.

“I look into the crystal ball everyday and when you’re in the business of predicting human behavior it is difficult but I look at the nature of the crime and some of the crimes – if we weren’t talking in a vacuum here – I could show you the 12 juveniles that have been sentenced to life in prison and you would tell me – I believe you would tell me – they deserve to be in jail for the rest of their life because of the crimes they committed.”

Ober brought a picture with him. The pictured showed a worn and tired young man with a shaved head and sunken eyes. That man was once a 12-year-old boy who was tried and convicted as an adult. A win Ober holds no reservations about.

“He was 14-years-old when he murdered a classmate of his – strangled her at Monroe Junior High School – and then took her out into the woods and stuck a stick up her to make it look like a sexual crime that someone else committed. He got 99 years in the Florida state prison. He’s still in prison because quite frankly, I don’t want him out on the street again because he’s dangerous. There’s something wrong with him that I don’t think you can correct.”

The issue is one of many Ober and Holt find themselves facing. But there is one thing they can nod in agreement about. And that’s state funding. Holt said Florida’s justice system has been, for the most part, spared any substantial cuts over the last two years. But they also haven’t been receiving cost of living adjustments. And employees have also had to start contributing to their own pensions.

“3% off the top of your respective salaries makes that a critical decrease in your pay and that critical decrease is putting our employees in a position of having to seek other employment or secondary employment which has a significant impact on their children.”

That legislation signed last year by Governor Rick Scott was ruled unconstitutional by a judge, but it’s still hurting state employees like those in the public defender and state attorney’s offices. Ober also complained that even though budgets haven’t been cut by the past two legislative sessions, they also haven’t been increased.

“I have 60 vacancies that I cannot fill because I simply don’t have the money. I have the caseload and the necessity, but I do not have the money to do that.”

If the ruling about mandatory 3% pension contributions is not overturned on appeal, the Florida budget will take a huge hit. Those concerns are reflected in state employees. Holt said worker retention is difficult in this tough budget climate.

“Our employees are still very afraid of what other reform is out there looming because we continue to hear that there’s going to be insurance reform, pension reform and perhaps more mandatory reductions of state workers. At some point in time, we might not be fortunate enough to be held harmless and we may be swept up into that broad paintbrush. I’m hopeful that they will recognize that we’re a part of a court system and that we are integral.”

Holt and Ober also fielded questions from Tiger Bay members about pill mills and the war on drugs. Ober defended laws prohibiting the use of certain substances and said there’s been progress on shutting down places that illegally prescribe narcotics. Holt said the war on drugs is obviously not working and suggested that something be done to limit the amount of medication a doctor can legally prescribe for things like dental surgery. She said in many of those instances, doctors prescribe up to 90 days worth of pain pills for only a few days of pain.

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