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Here's a story that made the Daily Kos front page that I wanted to touch upon:

The madness of Washington’s across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration is causing real damage to the American justice system — undermining the sound functioning of the courts and particularly imperiling the delivery of effective legal representation to poor people accused of federal crimes.

The $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal 2013 has resulted in a roughly 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices across the country. It has forced the layoffs of many experienced lawyers who have devoted their professional careers to the underappreciated and underpaid work of representing indigent federal defendants. And it has inflicted a pay cut on the defenders who remain on staff in the form of up to 20 unpaid furlough days.

These hits to the core legal staff have been accompanied by other blows, including reductions in lawyer training, research, investigation of cases and expert help, including interpreters. The cuts have also meant crippling reductions to federal probation and pretrial services, including mental health treatment, drug treatment and testing, and court supervision — all with disquieting implications for people’s rights and public safety. - New York Times, 7/20/13

Think Progress touched upon this topic late last month:

In the letter, the council’s president, Robert J. Anello, outlined the ways that sequestration is impacting the criminal justice system. The Federal Defenders’ office of New York has had its budget reduced by 20 percent, which has led it to furlough each employee, including its attorneys, for approximately 20 days at some point between March and September. That will reduce service by about 15 percent. Attorneys don’t have the funds to retain expert witnesses or travel to visit clients. If an additional 14 percent reduction goes into effect next year, it will have to lay off attorneys.

But the cuts will end up costing more money in the long run. “Because free representation for indigent criminal defendants is mandated by the Constitution,” the letter says, “all indigent defendants who are not represented by the Federal Defenders must be represented – at federal expense – by attorneys in private practice,” who cost more.

The cuts have had other impacts. Courthouses haven’t been able to make needed security upgrades. Cuts to probation departments could have “disturbing implications for public safety.” Courthouses have also been unable to pay for basic maintenance and some are running out of space. Bankruptcy courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York have reduced non-judge staff by 40 percent over the past two years, which leads to “disruptions and delays in those courts’ essential services.” - Think Progress, 6/28/13

But of course the biggest victims are public defenders:

The public defender system hasn't just been stripped bare by sequestration, its bones have been chiseled away as well. There has been a 9 percent reduction in the roughly $1 billion budget for federal public defender's offices, while federal defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices. Careers have been ended and cases have been delayed. All of it has occurred in the name of deficit reduction -- and yet, for all the belt-tightening being demanded of the nation's public defenders, money is not actually being saved.

When federal public defenders aren’t able to take a case because of a conflict, or because their workload is too great, the job falls to private court-appointed attorneys known as Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys. Those lawyers are paid from the same pool of money as federal public defenders, but they cost much more and, according to some studies, are less effective.

To keep the budget from completely exploding, the Judicial Conference, a group of senior circuit judges that helps administer guidelines for the courts, could -- indeed, may have to -- reduce the rates paid to private attorneys, but that could mean fewer CJA lawyers would be willing to take up such cases. That, in turn, would result in the accused spending more time in prison waiting for trials -- only further driving up costs. - Huffington Post, 7/22/13

Luckily, not everyone in Washington has been ignoring how the sequester has affected the justice system:
Some on the Hill are paying attention, though. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led in the effort by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), has scheduled a hearing for this Tuesday to examine sequestration's impact on the court system. Nachmanoff, among others, will be testifying.

It's not an appropriations committee hearing -- which would have been ideal, since the issue is now about cash -- but it's a start. Yet many worry that it won't meet the urgency of the moment. - Huffington Post, 7/22/13

I thank Senator Coons for looking into this and I look forward to seeing the committee hear about this.  Hopefully it might get more Senators to really re-think that whole sequester thing.

Originally posted to pdc on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 07:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.

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