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Public Defenders

ABA letter warns of ‘marked imbalance’ caused by sequestration cuts to public defender offices

Posted Aug 1, 2013 9:42 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The ABA warns in a letter to a U.S. senator that budget cuts to public defender offices imposed by sequestration are “creating a marked imbalance in our justice system.”

The letter (PDF) is intended to supplement the record of a July 23 hearing on the impact of sequestration on federal courts. The letter warns that inadequate funding of any particular justice system function “will have a negative ripple effect on the rest of the judicial system, a phenomenon amply demonstrated by the effect that funding cuts to defender services has had on the operation of the courts.”

The ABA says in the letter that federal defender offices across the country are downsizing or furloughing staff for 15 days or more. “Understaffed and underfunded, defender organizations are having difficulty keeping up with caseloads and securing the funds to pay for expert witnesses and other costs of representation,” the letter says.

According to Washington Post coverage of the hearing, furloughs were not evenly distributed. “While the U.S. District Courts, federal marshals and U.S. attorneys were spared furloughs because the Justice Department was able to shift money into the accounts that pay their salaries,” the Post says, “the defenders are paid from a different pot of money and got no such reprieve.”

The ABA letter says the differing impact on prosecutors and public defenders “is creating a marked imbalance in our justice system. Continued funding cuts to defender services likely will exacerbate this effect, increase government costs in the long run, imperil defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights to effective assistance of counsel and statutory guarantees of a speedy trial, and challenge our commitment to equal justice under the law.”

The letter is addressed to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts. It endorses a Senate bill that increases funding for the federal judiciary to $6.67 billion in fiscal 2014.

Related coverage:

New York Times editorial: “Justice Sequestered”

U.S. Courts: “Senate Hearing is Warned of Lasting Damage to Courts”

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