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Federal public defenders warn of dire budget cuts

Tuesday - 7/2/2013, 6:41pm  ET

Tom Hillier, the chief federal public defender in Seattle, looks through a glass sign at the entrance of his office, Monday, July 1, 2013. Under automatic cuts known as sequestration, federal public defender offices have been told they must reduce spending by 14 percent for fiscal year 2014, on top of the roughly 9 percent already cut back in 2013. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

GENE JOHNSON
Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- The lawyers who represent poor people charged with federal crimes across the country say they already face an unfair fight when they head into court against the resources of the Justice Department -- and that's only going to get worse if draconian budget cuts occur as planned next year.

As a result of the automatic cuts known as sequestration, federal public defender offices have recently been told they must reduce spending by 14 percent for fiscal year 2014, on top of the roughly 9 percent suffered this year.

The result, the lawyers say, will be drastic layoffs for public defenders, expensive case delays and costly appeals -- all for nothing, as pricier private attorneys are expected to step in to fill the void at government expense.

"Absent some immediate action, federal defenders will begin the process this summer of laying off between a third and half of their staff," said a memo prepared by several federal public defenders. "They will begin closing many offices. The cuts will result in irreparable damage to the criminal justice system, and paradoxically, greater expense to the taxpayer as indigent defendants are increasingly assigned private counsel."

Congress provides about $1 billion for the representation of criminal defendants who can't afford their own lawyer. The money is split evenly between federal public defender program, which was established in 1970, and private attorneys, who are generally paid $125 an hour to represent defendants who can't be represented by the public defenders because of conflicts of interest or other reasons.

Because the right to counsel is a constitutional guarantee, the federal defenders have no control over their workloads. When someone is charged and needs a lawyer, they're appointed. If public defenders have to take fewer cases due to staffing cuts that work will fall to the private lawyers -- who cost substantially more than full-time federal defenders, studies have shown.

"There are no actual savings here," said Tom Hillier, the chief federal public defender in Seattle. "Sooner or later Congress is going to have to come to grips with the fact that they're destroying institutions, and they're not saving money."

Under this year's cuts, some public defenders lost their jobs and the rest are taking up to 20 days of unpaid leave. The federal public defender's office in Los Angeles is simply closing for three weeks in September. The chief federal defender in southern Ohio laid himself off.

In New York, the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law was delayed because the public defenders who were representing him had to take furloughs, and in Boston, the lawyers for the surviving marathon bombing suspect have had to do it amid unpaid time off.

When staffing cuts force public defenders to ask for delays in cases or withdraw from cases altogether, it means defendants have to spend more time in pretrial custody -- increasing jail costs and raising concerns about the right to a speedy trial, the defenders' memo noted. The offices have also cut spending on training, travel, expert witnesses and case investigators -- all of which can affect the quality of representation and give rise to appeals.

The cuts being required next year are even starker.

--In Seattle, Hillier said he will have to lay off nine employees or his entire office will have to take more than nine weeks of unpaid time off.

--In San Francisco, Federal Public Defender Steven Kalar said he will have to close at least one branch office -- possibly Oakland, San Jose, or both -- and stop working on certain types of complex cases.

--In the District of Columbia, Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer said that his office would have to withdraw from a large number of cases. He's already down 10 positions, out of 35 he would normally be authorized to fill.

"We're headed to a huge fiscal crisis," said Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, whose office has added lawyers recently but also remains below historic staffing levels. "If the federal public defender closes shop, we can't do our work. Everybody we charge, they're entitled to a lawyer."

"The fact that we are not fully funded makes it an unfair fight in court," Hillier said. "The government has full resources and full staff, and we don't."

Nationally, more than 900 of the public defender program's approximately 2,700 staff members are expected to be cut over the next two years. Defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices. Because it costs money to lay people off -- in terms of severance, benefits and unemployment insurance claims -- many offices have to lay off more than one-third of their staff to reach the 23 percent budget reduction.

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