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Carlos J. Martinez: Fighting for Equal Justice

Carlos J. Martinez says there is a huge difference in the way rich and poor defendants are treated in misdemeanor cases. “All too often, an initial arrest is the start of a downward cycle for the poor,” said Martinez, who has served as Miami-Dade public defender since 2009.

In Miami-Dade, a person arrested for a misdemeanor is typically asked to post a $500 or $1,000 bond, according to Martinez. “That’s not a problem for someone with a credit card or family members who have the resources to pay the bondsman,” he said. “Otherwise, the individual stays in custody overnight. Then, the defendant faces pressure to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of ‘time served’ that lets him get back to work. But if that person is arrested again in the future, he is considered a repeat offender and is treated harshly by the legal system.”

Martinez says the problem is often compounded by lack of access to legal counsel. “If the prosecutors don’t seek jail time, judges interpret it as the arrested individual doesn’t have the right to a public defender,” he said. On the other hand, a defendant who hires a private attorney could go to trial and have arguments made to dismiss the case, Martinez said. “Our current system is simply unfair to the poor.”

Focusing on Prevention

Martinez says socio-economic issues like poverty, lack of education, difficulty in getting a job and mental health problems often precede an arrest – particularly in Miami-Dade County, whose poverty rate of 9.2 percent is the highest in the state.

Even before becoming the nation’s first elected Cuban-American public defender eight years ago, Martinez has tried to keep young adults out of the criminal justice system and find alternative solutions for first offenders.

“There are some terrible consequences if you get arrested and charged for relatively minor misbehavior,” he said. “For example, if you try to rent an apartment through a management company and have a criminal history, you won’t get it. If you apply for a job that requires a background check, you won’t get it.”

Martinez’ volunteer initiatives include “Play It Smart,” which teaches young people how to interact with law enforcement officers; and “Consequences Aren’t Minor,” which educates teenagers and adults about the consequences of illegal behaviors and arrests. His Juvenile Justice CPR (“Charting a Path to Redemption”) is a legal reform initiative designed to help troubled kids achieve the American dream.

“I would like to see more misdemeanors turned into civil cases, especially charges for driving with a suspended license,” Martinez said. “That’s a financial issue, not a criminal offense. Why don’t we put programs in place to help our residents pay their obligations, such as putting time into community service, rather than add to their legal burdens.”

Martinez adds that the civil citation process has worked well for Miami-Dade juveniles who get into fights or are apprehended for misdemeanors on school properties. “That has helped address the unequal treatment of minority children,” he said.

Rising From Poverty

A native of Cuba, Martinez arrived in Miami on a 1969 Freedom Flight. He learned the importance of hard work at an early age, as he would mop floors at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana, where his father Celedonio worked as a maintenance man and his mother Yara was the church’s receptionist.

Martinez credits his parents for his passion for social justice and for helping the poor. “By serving as public defender, I’m honoring my mother and father’s values and the sacrifices they made for us to live and prosper in a free country,” he said.

Martinez also credits the church’s Father John Hanrahan for inspiring him to consider a career in law. “As an altar boy at the church in the 1970s, I would ride with Father John to the offices of Channel 10, which would televise a mass,” he said. “I would be asking Father John questions the whole time, and he told me I should definitely think about becoming a lawyer.”

At the age of 16 while still in high school, Martinez was hired as a car wash attendant at a Miami Exxon station. Within three years, he was managing six gas stations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, working full-time to pay for his undergraduate college education.

Martinez attended Miami Dade College and graduated from Florida International University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law, earning his juris doctor in 1990.

While in law school, Martinez began working for the public defender’s office by accident — literally. “I was on my way to school for my summer placement, but was delayed by a car accident in front of me. Because I was late, my professor assigned me a project on how people in custody with HIV/AIDS were treated. That changed my trajectory from corporate to criminal law.”

Martinez would end up interning six semesters at the Dade public defender’s office, and stayed on after passing the bar. Several years later, he left to become a deputy public defender in Bellingham, Washington, but returned the next year. “That was a wonderful experience for me, but it was way too quiet compared with Miami,” he said.

In his fifth year with the public defender’s office, Martinez moved into an administrative role, and became a leader in state and national juvenile justice initiatives, including The Florida Bar’s Commission on the Legal Needs of Children, the Supreme Court of Florida Steering Committee on Drug Courts, and the National Institute of Corrections’ National Advisory Committee on Evidence Based Decision Making for Local Criminal Justice Systems. In 2006, he received the Florida Public Defender Association’s prestigious Craig Stewart Barnard Award for Outstanding Service — one of many awards and honors for his service. More recently, Martinez contributed a chapter on helping adolescents succeed for “A New Juvenile Justice System — Total Reform for a Broken System,” a book published in 2015 by New York University Press.

Leading the Team

Today, Martinez leads an office of 200 attorneys and 200 support staff who handle about 75,000 cases a year. “We recruit throughout the country, and have no problem getting excellent lawyers,” Martinez said. “This is known as a trial office, and we give our new attorneys plenty of training and experience in the courtroom.”

During the state’s budget crisis from 2008-2010, Martinez also recruited pro bono lawyers from Miami’s private law firms. “We appreciate the way the Miami-Dade legal community rallied around our office and provided assistance in that time of need,” he said.

While the felony caseload has fallen in recent years, Martinez’ team still averages more than 50 felony depositions a day and handles 200,000 phone calls a year. “We are in touch with family members, witnesses, the state attorney’s office and the courts regarding our cases,” Martinez said. “We also answer many questions from Miami-Dade residents asking about our services and if they qualify for a public defender.”

Reflecting on his career, Martinez said, “As a child, I would see families coming to our church in need of food, clothing and housing. As a public defender, I bring that same spirit to our office, where we help people who are less fortunate and whose freedom is in jeopardy.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2017 Edition

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