"One of the problems is the public's perception of the judiciary," Antoon said. "What we are finding in this research is much of that perception is negative and that some of the perceptions are based on a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding."
Antoon said one problem the survey found was that when the public thinks of the courts they tend to lump together all aspects of the criminal justice system from the police officer on the street to the policies of the Department of Corrections.
Antoon said his committee will now analyze the survey results and come up with recommendations to present to the JMC "and let them decide if the courts should be more involved in public education efforts and if so to what extent."
"The public seems to have the impression that courts are able to solve everything," Antoon said, "and of course that is not really the case."
Antoon said in devising a long range plan those perceptions should be addressed.
The findings on the public's perception of lawyers largely mirrored findings of a survey conducted last year by the Bar.
"While the scope of the JMC survey was different from the Bar's client perception study, it's interesting that we heard many of the same comments in our focus groups around the state," said Mike Stafford, chair of the Board of Governors Communications Committee. "The finding on attitudes toward lawyers continues to be disturbing. While many factors shape those attitudes, as individual attorneys we each have an opportunity to positively impact our perception by placing greater emphasis on professionalism in our relationships with clients, other lawyers and the courts."
Stafford also noted that JMC surveys results suggest that the Bar should give serious consideration to an advertising and public service campaign designed to educate the public about the legal system, lawyer's role within that system and lawyer's contributions to society.
The JMC Committee on Communication and Public Information conducted a telephone survey of 1,042 Florida residents on May to gather information on the level of public knowledge about the court system. To supplement the telephone survey findings, the committee held seven focus groups around the state in July and August to discuss and prioritize issues identified in the telephone survey, especially those regarding challenges the courts face, and how the JMC can best meet those challenges.
In the telephone survey, about half of respondents believed minorities and women do not do not receive as favorable treatment by the system as nonminorities and men. Focus group participants also did not believe courts treat everyone the same, but said treatment was based more on economic status than race or gender. The survey also found respondents had a "very negative attitude toward attorneys" and their view of attorneys is affecting their view of the courts.
"They strongly believe courts are too lenient with criminals," the study said. "most do not believe the courts deter crime, but they believe courts could deter crime by being swifter and stronger in sentencing. They think sentencing should be harder, and sentences should be served for the full time."
Respondents thought educational programs may help deter drug related crime, but they also favor "throwing the book" at those convicted of supplying drugs.
When asked what comes to mind when thinking about the Florida state court system, 42 percent of those surveyed by telephone gave a negative impression to the open-ended question, while an additional 23 percent had no impression at all.
The top six answers were:
Nothing comes to mind--23%;
The courts are doing a poor job--13%;
The courts are too lenient--11%;
There is a lack of justice in the courts--10%;
The courts are too slow--9%; and
The courts are doing a good job--5%
The survey also asked five questions to gauge the level of knowledge the public has about government and the court system.
1, Respondents were asked to name the branches of government and 55 percent could not name any, while only 20 percent could name all three.
2, When asked whether it's that defendant in a criminal trial must prove his or her innocence, 61 percent answered correctly.
3, When asked whether or not it was true that the prosecution in a criminal trial can appeal to a higher court if the defendant is found innocent, 54 percent either answered incorrectly or said they did not know.
4, When asked whether a Florida judge has the power to declare Florida laws unconstitutional any time they see fit, 51 percent answered incorrectly or said they did not know.
5, When asked whether Florida judges are authorized to provide legal advice to a party in a trial who needs help, 62 percent either answered incorrectly of said they did not know.
Focus group members generally agreed courts should treat everyone equally but also said equal treatment was not common, the study found.
Many focus group members said the problem could not be solved because "we are all human," and the main reason cited for "some are more equal than others" was money, the study said.
"Respondents uniformly agreed that those with the financial means get off 'lighter' from the courts, but respondents had a difficult time giving specific ways for solving the problem. One suggestion was to standardize penalties for crimes and allow no reduction or alteration of the sentence. Other suggestions included hiring more public defenders, closing loopholes to ensure equal serving of sentences, training judges and court personnel on sensitivity and equality issues, assigning attorneys to cases, and having professional jurors who were better educated and knew the law.
"Notably absent in the [focus group] discussion of this issue was any reference to unequal treatment according to race or gender," the study said. "inequalities focussed however on economic issues."
Forty seven percent of those interviewed by phone said whites and minorities were not treated equally, the study said.
Only 12 percent of focus group respondents indicated a positive attitude toward attorneys. Forty percent were neutral, and just under 48 percent gave a negative or very negative rating.
"The way these respondents view the Florida court system is equally divided between the way they view attorneys," the study said. "When asked if their view of attorneys affected their view of Florida's court system, just under half (46 percent) said 'strongly' or 'moderately.' just over half (54 percent) reported slightly or not at all. Seventy-two percent said their view of attorneys did affect their view of the courts to some degree."
The focus group respondents generally agreed simplifying legal language would aid significantly in reducing complicated procedures. On several occasions, participants said, "Put them in plain English," the report said.
"Most believed that the ordinary citizen could not understand court procedures because of the complex way they were written," the study said. "They believed the entire process was too complicated and needed simplification. Many suggested simple written materials that could be distributed in pamphlets, or even shown on television."
Focus group members also suggested standardizing procedures across all courts at the local state and federal levels and said some means of making information on procedures readily available through, for example, local libraries or at the courts themselves.
Some reported the desire to have some type of public education program for citizens, and a few recommended incorporating legal studies into public school curricula, the study said.
When asked if they thought most people understood court procedures, almost everyone in the focus groups responded negatively.
"Most also did not believe the procedures were explained well enough before going to court, but were explained after a person got to court," the study said. "A few also noted that good attorneys do explain the procedures to their clients."
Respondents agreed that individuals who were interested and willing to take the time could learn about procedures, but they also said it was difficult even for the willing.
While some focus group members acknowledged that information is available for those willing to take the time to find it, most felt finding information was a problem, the study said. Many suggested having information available in public places, generally the local public library or inside the court itself. Other suggestions included a series on television and in the local newspapers on how to find information, toll-free numbers and automated telephone services, information in self-help booths located at the courts, increased numbers of legal aid advisors, programs for senior citizens and other groups, and information on the World Wide Web.
The focus group respondents also were asked about the courts as a deterrent to crime. First, participants were asked what the term "the court" meant to them. Only one participant identified the court as the judge and jury. Most thought of the court as the "process" or the criminal justice system, the study said.
"If individuals in these groups are representative of Florida residents, one conclusion is that people in general do not understand 'the court,'" the study said.
Respondents were then asked if they thought courts were a factor in deterring crime if they functioned properly.
"Once again, responses were mixed," the study said. "While some thought courts did deter crime, most believed they did not."
The study said most agreed that the courts could deter crime, but only if they "functioned properly." Comments indicated that most participants did not believe the courts now function properly, the study said.
As a follow-up, participants were asked what it was about the courts that did or could deter crime. Here, the study said, the focus groups talked about making the punishment fit the crime, timely and stronger enforcement of sentences, closing loopholes, being harder on first time offenders, consistency of sentences, having more judges to speed the process, limiting the number of appeals, and making prisoners work while in jail.
Participants also were asked how courts could deter drug related crime. While a few focused on youth and education programs aimed at preventing drug crimes, most focused on sentences for drug related crime, the study said.
"They believed that the punishments should be stronger, and more resources should be directed toward the suppliers and sources of the drugs rather than the on-the-street sellers," the study said. "They advocated maximum sentences, and serving the maximum time for the crime."
Some encouraged the courts to promote neighborhood involvement programs and a few believed there was actually nothing the courts could do to deter drug-related crime. The study said a small number argued for the decriminalization and legalization of drugs as a solution.
"Notably absent from the discussion was any mention of any treatment-based alternative such as drug court," the study said.