The madness of Washington’s across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration is causing real damage to the American justice system — undermining the sound functioning of the courts and particularly imperiling the delivery of effective legal representation to poor people accused of federal crimes.
The $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal 2013 has resulted in a roughly 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices across the country. It has forced the layoffs of many experienced lawyers who have devoted their professional careers to the underappreciated and underpaid work of representing indigent federal defendants. And it has inflicted a pay cut on the defenders who remain on staff in the form of up to 20 unpaid furlough days.These hits to the core legal staff have been accompanied by other blows, including reductions in lawyer training, research, investigation of cases and expert help, including interpreters. The cuts have also meant crippling reductions to federal probation and pretrial services, including mental health treatment, drug treatment and testing, and court supervision — all with disquieting implications for people’s rights and public safety.
That things have reached this point is a deep embarrassment for a nation grounded on the rule of law. Yet it appears that the situation is about to get much worse. Federal defender offices have been told to prepare for another round of cuts of roughly 14 percent for the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
But this will save the government money, right? Nope. Huffington Post followed up with this article about how the cuts will cost the taxpayer much more:
When federal public defenders aren’t able to take a case because of a conflict, or because their workload is too great, the job falls to private court-appointed attorneys known as Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys. Those lawyers are paid from the same pool of money as federal public defenders, but they cost much more and, according to some studies, are less effective.What's the federal government's answer? Build more prisons even though it costs more to put someone in prison than it does to supervise him. A lot more:
To keep the budget from completely exploding, the Judicial Conference, a group of senior circuit judges that helps administer guidelines for the courts, could -- indeed, may have to -- reduce the rates paid to private attorneys, but that could mean fewer CJA lawyers would be willing to take up such cases. That, in turn, would result in the accused spending more time in prison waiting for trials -- only further driving up costs.
“It’s a situation where the federal government will wind up paying far more,” said A.J. Kramer, the top federal public defender in Washington, D.C.
It doesn't make any sense. But it wasn't supposed to. The $85 billion in sequestration cuts -- which included reductions to the federal public defender budget -- were designed to be so onerous that lawmakers would have no choice but to turn the whole thing off. Except they never did.
In 2012, the annual cost of placing an offender in a Bureau of Prisons institution or federal residential reentry center was roughly eight times the cost of placing the same offender under post-conviction supervision by a federal probation officer. Pretrial detention for a defendant was nearly 10 times more expensive than the cost of supervision of a defendant by a pretrial services officer in the federal system.