Federal Public Defenders Set to Take Heavy Hit from Budget Cuts

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court established the right to legal counsel for poor people in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, steep budget cuts brought on by the sequester have impacted federal public defenders who now face layoffs, office closures and the difficulty of turning down cases from those facing criminal charges in U.S. district courts.


Some legal offices are looking at staff reductions of 30% to 50%, making it challenging for public defenders to provide adequate legal defense. Some experts warn the cutbacks could result in defendants having their constitutional rights to speedy trials violated or cases being dismissed altogether.


There are 81 public defender offices across the U.S. that handle 60% of all criminal defendants in the federal court system. These offices first were hit with a 10% budget cut earlier this year after sequestration kicked in. In the 2014 fiscal year, the offices could suffer another 23% reduction, plus another 10% cut due to additional budget trimming measures.


Public defenders have said the reductions are hitting them particularly hard because their offices have little or no overhead. Almost all of their funding goes toward paying lawyers and for office space, with only 10% devoted to paying for expert witnesses, investigative costs and travel.


In Minnesota, where almost 90% of federal defendants use public defenders, the Minnesota public defender, Katherian Roe, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she will probably cut her staff from 18 to 10.


“We were already defending cases with one hand behind our backs before the sequester,” Jonathan Hawley, a federal public defender in Peoria, Illinois, told The New York Times. “Now we will have to operate with both hands behind our back.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Public Defenders Are Tightening Belts Because of Steep Federal Budget Cuts (by Ron Nixon, New York Times)

Public Defenders Fall to the Sequester (by Paul Cassell and Nancy Gertner, Wall Street Journal)

Sequester to Hit Public Defenders, U.S. Attorney in Minnesota (by David Hanners, St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Despite 50-Year-Old Supreme Court Ruling, Poor Defendants Still have Trouble Finding Lawyers (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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