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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — For the first time in at least 30 years, assistant public defenders are working in the branch courthouses across Miami-Dade County. They are assisting people charged with misdemeanors.

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And even though, under Florida law, individuals who face no jail time are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez decided to make his attorneys available to anyone who might have questions or concerns about their case.

Martinez took the unprecedented action in response to the CBS4 News series Race Matters, which documented the racial disparities in misdemeanor court cases and how hundreds of people every year were entering pleas without understanding the impact it could have on their ability to find a job, gain housing, apply for a student loan or enter the military.

“It was striking to me when you did your report, a lot of us don’t even look at the branch courts,” he said. “We cannot expect the judges to be doing the work of an attorney. They are prohibited from giving legal counsel, so somebody has to give legal counsel.”

Starting in August, Martinez assigned a handful of attorneys to the branch courthouses – located in North Dade, Hialeah, Miami Beach and South Dade.

“We’re not getting huge numbers of cases,” he said, “but we are at least providing information to the folks so at least they know the consequences they are facing.”

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On a recent trip to the South Dade courthouse, even Martinez found himself jumping in to help a few individuals, including a man who had several cases pending against him for having a suspended driver’s license.

“People want to comply with the law,” he said. “This gentleman that is homeless and unemployed, he wanted to comply with the law and he has done everything he can to clear up his driving record but he still can’t get insurance because he’s unemployed.”

Martinez was able to refer him to a social service agency that could help him.

Assistant Public Defender Colin Hershey is one of the attorneys now assigned to South Dade. He said even a simple court case can become daunting for some people who don’t understand how the system works.

“We just need to make sure if someone is going to take a plea, which happens, that they are informed and they are making the best decision for them,” Hershey said. “This is a great way to inform people, to give advice, to see if we can get appointed on cases and make a real change here.”

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Public Defender Martinez plans on keeping his attorneys in the branch courthouses through the end of the year and then evaluate how the program is going.

Jim DeFede