Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee examines the costs of consolidation
A preliminary review by a Supreme Court committee suggests that consolidation of Florida’s judicial circuits would have an overall “neutral or no fiscal impact.”
In a June 30 administrative order, Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz directed the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee to consider whether consolidation of circuits, within existing district court of appeal boundaries, is warranted.
The order was prompted by a letter from House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast attorney. Renner suggested consolidation, through “economies of scale in back-office operations,” could generate “substantial cost savings.”
But a JCAC Fiscal and Resources Subcommittee preliminary report suggests that consolidation would be a fiscal wash, or in some instances, cost taxpayers more.
“The Subcommittee determined that judicial circuit consolidation would have an overall estimated neutral or no fiscal impact as it relates to the work of the trial courts, clerks, and other justice entities,” the report states.
“Notably, the Subcommittee determined that judicial circuit consolidation would have an estimated short-term negative fiscal impact for specific functional categories, such as technology.”
A negative fiscal impact means cost increase.
The report states that the “trial courts and clerks anticipate this category to generate negative fiscal impact in the short term due to transition and implementation costs.”
Furthermore, consolidation would have “an overall estimated negative fiscal impact as it relates to the work of the state attorneys and public defenders,” the report states.
The subcommittee is chaired by 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, who has also served as the Trial Court Budget Commission chair since 2017.
The report is careful to note that the findings are only preliminary. The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee won’t begin considering its recommendations until after a second and final public hearing on October 13 in Tampa. The assessment committee faces a December 1 deadline to make its recommendations to the Supreme Court.
“Without knowing which judicial circuits are subject to consolidation, the subcommittee cannot truly know or appreciate the exact fiscal or other impacts of consolidation without extensive analysis,” the report notes.
Should the JCAC recommend a specific consolidation, the subcommittee will conduct an additional review, the report states.
Beginning in August, the subcommittee began circulating extensive surveys to state attorneys, public defenders, court clerks, trial court administrators, law enforcement and corrections administrators.
The responses identified some areas where consolidation could generate cost savings, such as “travel resources” for corrections and law enforcement.
“For example, the [Department of Juvenile Justice] noted that they would anticipate a greater reliance on technology and in-person meetings, such as juvenile detention court reviews, could transition to a virtual setting.”
The Florida Department of Corrections “would have fewer chief judges to coordinate with, thus increasing consistency in probation outcomes, and fewer state attorneys to coordinate with, thereby increasing consistency in prosecutorial outcomes,” according to one survey response.
But any potential savings that could be generated by eliminating an elected state attorney or public defender would be offset “to some degree by increased need for supervisory personnel,” the report notes.
Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who serves as a JCAC Fiscal and Resources Subcommittee liaison, wrote that her fellow prosecutors contend that it is unrealistic to assume a cost savings by eliminating an elected state attorney position, “as the increased size of a judicial circuit will require additional senior leadership to manage a higher number of offices and increased management costs will likely neutralize any costs savings.”
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