The Florida Legislature's various budget writing committees were still waiting for new revenue estimates Thursday. But that didn't stop them from starting to lay the groundwork for next year's state spending plan. Tom Flanigan reports it was during one such meeting that the Senate Budget Subcommittee for Criminal and Civil Justice heard some troubling news.
Before subcommittee members could decide where they needed to go in the budget process, they wanted a feel for were they'd been in terms of this year's budget. So there were a number of reports from state agencies that are connected with the state's justice system. One such report came from Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters. Last year, lawmakers approved the use of civil citations, similar to traffic tickets, instead of arrests for some kinds of youthful misdeeds.
"Eighty to ninety percent of the first-time offenders, when given proper assessment and sanctions and oversight, really move on without any further involvement in our system."
Walters said that allowed the state to close the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna as well as a second juvenile facility in Arcadia. A reduction, she said, in about three-hundred beds and lots of saved money. One subcommittee member, Republican Mike Bennett of Bradenton, remembered higher numbers when the plan was proposed.
"And correct me if I'm wrong, Mr. Chairman, I thought that last year we were looking at a reduction of close to 900 850, 900. Maybe I'm misinformed, but I think we were."
But if those numbers were in dispute, another set of figures given to the subcommittee was more definite. It was a forecast of home foreclosures from Office of State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner.
"Filings are projected to go back up in (20)12-13 and they will peak at about 265,000 and the projections - these are all the official projections - are is that they would normalize in the years 2016-17."
Goodner says the "normal" level of foreclosures in Florida is around seventy-thousand a year. That's not good news, especially since, Goodner says, lawmakers had already funneled lots of extra money into the court system to handle a backlog of existing foreclosure cases.
"We have so far received an additional $99.6 million to get through the month of March. Our current projections with the current revenue that we're getting and the projected revenue is that we'll still be about $12.5 million short before the end of the year."
Meanwhile, Goodner says, the court system's foreclosure backlog will only get worse.
"We had about 368,000 cases backlogged at the beginning of the fiscal year. We estimate that another 180,000 will get backlogged between now and 2016."
What will it take to clear those caseloads? Goodner says it's simply returning to something that was working before.
"It would basically re-institute the program we had in place that the legislature funded in (20)10-11 that allows us to put case managers on line and senior judges and magistrates online to manage the backlog."
Price tag for the first year, Goodner says, would be just over $5.5 million. That extra money could be a stretch as lawmakers look to lower spending by at least two billion dollars. Then there's the matter of convincing lending institutions that they need to speed up their participation in foreclosure cases. Goodner says that's another big reason behind Florida's huge foreclosure backlog.