Wednesday, October 2, 2013

GateHouse: The public safety double whammy

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
October 2, 2013
The dreaded government shutdown is here. The sun rose, your lights are still on, and for most Americans—unless you work for the federal government — you still have a job. There is no question that a shutdown can be inconvenient and a hardship, but can it be dangerous?
The double whammy — sequestration and a government shutdown — will have an impact on public safety.
Chief Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio said the federal court system could function for about two weeks, using court imposed fees collected over time. “Beyond two weeks, those funds probably would be exhausted,” Oliver told the Akron Beacon Journal. “So if there’s any shutdown for a substantial period of time, it’s going to be devastating to the courts and, I’m sure, all of the governmental agencies.”
After those two weeks, if there is still no appropriation, the Judiciary will operate under terms of the Antideficiency Act, which allows "essential work" to continue during a lapse in appropriations. Agencies with essential employees include federal prisons, law enforcement and criminal courts.
Even before the shutdown, federal courts were feeling the crunch. Sequestration, the across-the-board government spending reductions, have cost the courts nearly $350 million this year.  The cuts have been called “devastating” and “painful.”
Clerks, probation and pretrial offices have lost as many as 1,000 staff. The staff that has been maintained have surrendered about 8,600 furlough days during 2013.
Initially, the government shut down will not result in cuts for any government employee whose work is essential to “protect life and property." For example: all emergency medical care, food-safety inspections, border patrol, emergency and disaster assistance, overseeing the banking system, operating the power grid, guarding federal property, investigating crime and resolving cases.
However, Atlanta's U.S Attorney and the special agent in charge of the FBI said that deep budget cuts are already diverting funds from investigating crime, and it's putting public safety at risk.
"When you have fewer people, when you have less money, when you don't have the resources to do the cases you used to do, there's going to be a public safety impact on the district," U.S. Attorney Sally Yates told Mark Winne of WSB-TV in Atlanta.
"A furlough is just a nice way of saying 'pay cut.'" Yates said. "We're doing everything we can to try to prioritize our cases and to do the most significant cases."
The FBI is the federal government’s investigative arm, responsible for everything from counter-terrorism to domestic crime.  The agency already has a hiring freeze, so agents who retire or otherwise leave the agency are not being replaced. As the prospect of furloughs loom over the agency Mark Giuliano, FBI agent-in-charge told Winne, "We’re talking about as many as 16 (furlough) days for every employee of the FBI nationwide."
Those who defend people in federal court are also feeling the pain. Federal public defenders will be forced to terminate up to half their employees and close branch offices if funding stays at the same level in the upcoming federal budget, not to mention a government shutdown. Michael Nachmanoff, a federal public defender from Virginia predicted, “The federal defender system will be devastated.”
Local law enforcement has also taken a pounding in the last two years. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, federal funding for criminal justice assistance through the U.S. Department of Justice has dropped by an enormous 43 percent.
Forty-four percent of local law enforcement agencies reported a funding drop of at least one-third while 14 percent reported a cut of more than one-half.
When you have fewer people and less resources logic dictates that public safety will be impacted.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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