Federal public defenders hit hard by budget cuts

Story highlights

  • Forced time-off for federal public defenders and staff
  • Some working nights and weekends to try to keep up
  • Pressure intensifies as Justice Department not slowing down

Furloughs, delayed cases, smaller paychecks and weekend work.

The office that provides lawyers to indigent defendants in federal criminal cases nationwide is one agency hard hit by sweeping government budget cuts.

In many cases, it has been hard to gauge the impact of $85 billion in mandatory austerity through September, called sequester, since it took effect March 1 over the inability of Congress to reach a spending agreement.

But consequences for the U.S. Office of the Public Defender have been stark.

"They want us to do more cases with less time," said A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia.

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He told CNN mandatory furloughs began last week for his staff.

The shortfalls for offices like those run by Kramer could mean difficulty for defendants preparing for trial on federal criminal charges in courts across the country.

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In most of those cases, the defense consists of a public defender or a court-appointed private attorney doing pro-bono work, according to government statistics.

Kramer said that among his investigators, assistant public defenders, researchers and case writers, as many as a third are taking unpaid Fridays or Mondays off to comply.

He is leaving the decision up to employees as they coordinate with day care, family finances and other matters at home.

"The more days they take off in one pay period, the smaller the paycheck," he noted.

He said some staff will be around each weekday to keep the office open. He estimates it will take 27 unpaid days for each staffer to meet the 20 percent budget cut imposed on his office.

In Dallas, Federal Public Defender Richard Anderson decided to close the office every Friday through the end of the fiscal year.

"I have already cut costs at this office to the bone and I have run out of both time and options," Anderson said in a letter to the chief judge in his area obtained by CNN.

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Anderson said he hoped to avoid shutdowns if only those in charge would "come to their senses and validate this office's worth and contributions to the federal criminal justice system."

Instead, by closing Fridays, Anderson said he is forced to ask judges for delays in various cases that are likely to cause a "tremendous ripple effect on the federal criminal justice system."

Federal prosecutors, meantime, are pushing ahead with their cases and are not taking unpaid time off yet, if at all.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he plans to delay any furlough decisions until the middle of the month.

"I fully understand you may be anxious about the possibility of furloughs," Holder said in an e-mail to employees last week, suggesting there might be a way to avoid unpaid leave.

Kramer, at the U.S. District Court in Washington, said he and his staff already worked nights and weekends to keep up, and that furloughs will push more of that work off-hours.

"We can't work on a furlough day," he said, even if employees were willing to come in on their own time.

Federal judges, he said, have been understanding and willing to accommodate changes in the trial schedule.

But it may become difficult for some to find alternative defense counsel.

Funding for private attorneys volunteering their time pro bono and through community non-profit legal groups receive some compensation from the federal judiciary.

Kramer says that kind of defense can "cost more than a federal public defender" once case hours are tallied. And he expects pressure on his office and others across the country against that option.

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