WILMINGTON, DEL. — Forced budget cuts have taken a significant toll on taxpayer-financed federal public defenders, and some judges fear the U.S. court system could get mired in gridlock if Congress doesn’t act to restore money by the new spending year.
U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Theodore McKee said it “is not hyperbole” to describe the situation as a looming constitutional crisis.
“We are not there today, but every day we get closer to that point,” he said.
U.S. Chief District Judge for Delaware Gregory Sleet agreed.
“I am very concerned as to whether we are going to be able to meet our constitutional obligation in the criminal context,” said Sleet, both in terms of getting indigent defendants a speedy trial and adequate representation.
“We are talking about crippling the most effective, most efficient means of delivering excellent criminal representation to indigent people,” he said.
And the alternative — to hire outside private attorneys — will cost taxpayers more and in many cases deliver a lower quality of representation from less-experienced litigators, Sleet said.
“We can’t function without them,” he said.
The problem is automatic spending cuts in legal services and other federal programs triggered when Congress failed to reach a budget agreement this year and dire budget projections if a deal isn’t reached this fall.
McKee said federal courts in the Delaware area may have to close one day a week if the cuts continue. Delaware and other federal courts already limit criminal matters on Fridays to meet sequester cuts.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., has scheduled a congressional hearing Tuesday to discuss the issue.
While the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Marshal Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware all have avoided furloughs this year due to one-time savings and budgetary moves, federal defenders already were facing a 5 percent reduction when the forced federal cuts imposed another 5 percent reduction in March.
So far this year, in addition to slashing travel and training budgets, employees at the Delaware Federal Defender’s Office have had to take off eight days without pay and will have to take off an additional four to seven days before Sept. 15. The office has an annual budget of about $3.3 million.
Coons said that the looming crisis in providing adequate legal representation for the poor is just the latest in “stupid” automatic federal cuts that are hurting the country and will ultimately cost taxpayers more.
In a June letter “sounding the alarm” to Coons, Delaware Federal Defender Edson Bostic warned that the coming cuts “will virtually eliminate Federal Defender organizations in due time.”
Under current projections, if the sequester cuts are not addressed, the federal defenders — and other parts of the federal judiciary — are facing a 23 percent cut in fiscal 2014.
Coons said from his experience as New Castle County executive, it is comparatively easy to cut 5 percent by trimming training and travel budgets and putting off new hires.
“A 10 percent cut is hard. A 23 percent cut, you are hollowing out an organization,” he said.
Bostic said to meet a 23 percent cut, or $776,000, he will have to lay off two employees — on top of two jobs that have already been left vacant — and force his remaining 17 employees to take between 26 and 60 furlough days.
“There is only so much that we can humanly do,” Bostic wrote to Coons.
McKee said that there are also looming cuts to pretrial and probation programs that will only increase the rate of re-offenders.
So instead of the government spending $3,400 to supervise a defendant in the community, it will have to spend $29,000 to keep him in jail, or put him back in jail if he re-offends.
“So you are paying more for a less safe system,” McKee said. “It is absolutely insane.”
Bostic and others said while they wait for funding to be restored, they are seeking authority to delay payments to outside attorneys who federal defenders hire when there is a conflict-of-interest for a particular case, such as when two defendants blame each other for a crime.
“Without such a step toward maintaining the integrity of Defender offices, the entire defender system will inevitably crumble,” Bostic wrote.
Sean O’Sullivan reports for The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal.