Immokalee court and probation services to be suspended

Are you an Immokalee resident who will be on probation after June 1? Are you concerned about driving to Naples? Contact Naples Daily News reporter Matt Clark by calling (239) 213-6042 or sending an e-mail to mclark@naplesnews.com.

Those interested in providing their input on the Collier Clerk of Court’s review of the need for its Immokalee satellite office should send their thoughts in an e-mail to collierclerk@collierclerk.com.

Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit Court will suspend June 1 all misdemeanor court and probation services in Immokalee, court officials confirmed Monday.

In a public notice, the Collier Clerk of Court’s Office said it will also be reviewing the need for its satellite office in Immokalee, and welcomed public input on the review.

The decision to suspend the court operations was the result of dwindling court revenues and the ongoing fiscal crisis facing state and local government, said Senior Deputy Court Administrator Mark Middlebrook, who is chief of operations for the circuit’s Collier operations.

“We have conducted misdemeanor court out there for the last 20 years. We will suspend those court operations, those court events until further notice,” Middlebrook said. “We also have a probation office out there and we will be bringing people to Naples and having them work out of Naples.”

Middlebrook estimated roughly 90 percent of probationers are required to visit their officer’s office once a month. The facilities’ suspension may require many of those living in Immokalee who have been arrested on a misdemeanor charge or who are on probation to drive or use public transportation for more than an hour to get to the court in Naples.

“It is a public safety issue,” Middlebrook said before noting how much time someone accused or convicted of a misdemeanor spends with the judicial system. “We see them more than any other.”

The suspension is occurring now, rather than at the beginning of the next fiscal year, because the court’s revenues are declining, Middlebrook said. Revenues from criminal traffic and misdemeanor offenses have decreased by 40 percent in the past two years and continue to do so, he said.

Currently, Middlebrook said the court receives roughly half its funding from the county, but only a small amount — about $250,000 — comes from the county’s general fund.

“They have told us we need to reduce our costs in the current budget. Additionally, they are cutting our budget five percent for the coming year,” Middlebrook said, after noting that nine probation officers will have been laid off between 2007 and when the courts file their budget recommendation to the county later this year.

“We’re going to have to look at everything across the board,” Middlebrook said.

Collier County Manager Lee Ochs said the county is interested in having the court’s operations in the county be more self-sufficient and will work with the circuit to ensure an amicable agreement is met.

“Our commission has always worked well with the 20th Judicial Circuit, and I suspect that as we get into the budget deliberations in the next several months, we will have plenty of opportunities to sit with the court staff and try and work out a funding relationship that will meet their desires,” Ochs said.

Ochs said that it is the responsibility of the state to fund the state’s courts.

“But they’ve apparently been unable to maintain that funding commitment, and there are some discretionary programs our board has continued to fund,” Ochs said. “With dollars becoming tighter and tighter, everyone is looking to reduce expenses anywhere we can.”

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