Saturday, June 1, 2013

GateHouse: Sequester is ‘compromising public safety’

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
May 31, 2013

In March, the federal sequester took effect, resulting in $85 billion in spending cuts. Sequestration was triggered by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by 2021. The Pentagon took about an 8 percent cut; most other agencies were cut by 5 percent including the Courts, the Department of Justice and federal defenders.

Not every agency is feeling the pain. In April, when the Federal Aviation Administration attributed about 1,000 daily flight delays to air traffic controller furloughs, Congress rushed through a bill to provide funding to the FAA to put the controllers back to work.

For months, the Justice Department (DOJ) had been warning prosecutors, FBI agents and others employees that they faced up to 14 days of unpaid time off. Last month, however, the DOJ turned to emergency funding transfers to avoid furloughs at federal prisons.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the extra money — along with a hiring freeze, contracting cuts and other reductions — resulted in avoiding furloughs for all DOJ staff  in 2013.

Last month, Judge Julia S. Gibbons, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and chairwoman of the budget committee for the Judicial Conference of the United States, told members of the House Appropriations Committee, that the across-the-board five percent cuts were having a devastating effect on court operations, are compromising public safety and delaying trials and the resolution of legal disputes, according to Law360.

Last week, in a letter sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Judicial Conference reiterated the crisis in the courts. The conference argued that the courts need an emergency appropriation of $73 million — $41 million for federal public defenders and $32 million for court operations.

The letter warned that sequestration cuts are impacting public safety. Staffing cuts for probation and parole means “less deterence, detection and response” to criminal activity by federal defedants and offenders in the community.

Funding GPS and other elctronics monitoring of potentially dangerous defendents and offenders has been cut 20 percent. Equivalent cuts to funding for drug testing; substance abuse and mental health treatment for federal defendants and offenders have also further increased the risk to public safety.

With the DOJ not furloughing staff the Judicial Conference anticpates the pace of appointing defense counsel for criminal cases will continue unabated. The federal defenders have lost 113 employees and will lose 50 more, along with 9,600 work days by 1,700 employees through planned furloughs. The federal defenders also need emergency funding to avoid deferring payment to much needed private court-apointed counsel.

"It’s terrible, it really has a terrible effect both personally on people’s lives and professionally, their ability to do the work,” A.J. Kramer, the Washington, D.C., federal public defender, told The Huffington Post. “We currently have [cases] where we’re trying to figure out whether we can continue to represent the person or not, because of the time and expense involved.”

There is little wiggle-room for federal defenders. More than 90 percent of defender budgets are earmarked for salaries. Any budget cuts have a direct impact on providing services.

While there isn’t the same uproar over  inadequate criminal defense funding as there was for delayed airline flights, the loss in defense funding has the potential to be costly and a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The loss in funding could result in longer sentences than are appropriate and the potential incarceration of innocent men and women. In both instances, tragic and costly. Not to mention the additional expense of adjudicating claims for ineffective assistance of counsel and the cost of retrying cases that come back on appeal.

Sequestration for federal defenders may prove to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”

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