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Federal public defenders warn budget cuts may threaten ability to represent clients

About nine in 10 people accused of crimes in federal courts are represented by a public defender or court-appointed attorney. If Congress proceeds with its current budget plans, the defenders may need to lose nearly 500 full-time staff members.
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About nine in 10 people accused of crimes in federal courts are represented by a public defender or court-appointed attorney. If Congress proceeds with its current budget plans, the defenders may need to lose nearly 500 full-time staff members.

Federal public defenders are warning they face a severe budget shortfall that may force them to trim more than 10 percent of their current work force later this year, with aftershocks that could hurt the low-income people they represent in court.

About nine in 10 people accused of crimes in federal courts are represented by a public defender or court-appointed attorney. If Congress proceeds with its current budget plans, the defenders may need to lose nearly 500 full-time staff members.

"This is going to be catastrophic," said Melody Brannon, the federal public defender in Kansas. "Our money goes to salaries to pay defenders and investigators and paralegals and social workers who provide representation for the most impoverished people in our society."

The decisions by House and Senate appropriators for the 2024 budget appear to stem from a budgeting quirk. The federal defenders carried forward an unusually large $111 million in funds, leftover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This carryforward allowed Congress to actually give defenders a lower fiscal year 2023 amount because when combined with $111 million offset, they were fully funded. But Congress then apparently benchmarked the low FY 2023 enacted appropriation (sans the $111 million) as the FY 2024 mark, leading to a huge shortfall for the coming year, multiple defenders said.

A recent workforce study concluded the defenders already operated close to the bone and recommended creating at least 250 more full-time jobs, the defenders wrote earlier this month to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. They said the budget crisis would mean delayed prosecutions, longer detention for people awaiting trial and disruptions in court proceedings.

Word of the cuts is landing at a particularly tough time. This is also the 60th anniversary of the Gideon case, which guaranteed low-income people the right to a free lawyer if they're accused of serious crimes.

Federal defenders have raced to handle a huge surge in cases related to the January 6th Capitol riot and to help in Indian Country, where a recent Supreme Court ruling upended the justice system.

If federal defenders are too strapped to handle these cases, the burden shifts to private defense attorneys, who are often paid more and have less expertise.

But Brannon warned that even those private lawyers won't be paid on time.

"And if you're a small practice, a solo lawyer, ... not getting paid for three and a half months can be devastating," Brannon said. "That's your overhead, that's your operations."

The last time things looked so bad for public defenders was 10 years ago — when Congress imposed nearly across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

Back then, a senior federal public defender in Ohio chose to lay himself off to protect his staff.

"These are not luxury services that we're providing," Steve Nolder told NPR in 2013. "These are constitutionally mandated services, and because they're mandated, someone has to do it."

Federal defenders say they are going public now to try to convince Congress to change course. There's still time, they say, for lawmakers to act.

"Instead of showing our gratitude by providing Federal Defenders with the resources they need to advocate for their clients, we are at risk of critically underfunding their constitutionally-mandated services," Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said in a written statement.

Durbin said he'll work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers "to provide the Federal Defenders the funding and resources they need to fulfill their important mission."

A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said it is still assessing what the budget proposals mean and declined further comment. There are about 4,100 people employed by public defenders, nearly half of them attorneys, the AO said.

House Republicans say they want to slash the Justice Department's budget and public defense and other parts of those same larger spending bills could fall victim to more powerful political winds.

NPR National Political Correspondent Susan Davis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.