Immigration reform must adequately fund the federal courts

Posted Wednesday, May. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For most Americans, the immigration debate has hinged on pathways to citizenship and calls for tougher border enforcement. But a less-noted issue threatens the delivery of justice and public safety: How will U.S. courts handle the crush of cases that a new law is likely to produce?

A U.S. Senate bill sets aside $6.5 billion for immigration enforcement agents and new prosecutors — potentially tripling federal immigration cases in some Southwest border areas. But none of that money is for the courts.

This comes after years in which federal courts absorbed growing demands with stagnant or even diminished staffing. Since 1990, U.S. district court caseloads have increased 39 percent, with only a 4 percent rise in judgeships. Courts have shed more than 2,000 employees in the last two years and are operating with the same staffing levels as in 1999.

The courts’ problems have been worsened by nearly $350 million in sequestration cuts. Some courts have suspended Friday hearings, and others have been slowed by reduced hours for clerks, defenders and court security staff.

Federal judicial leaders have taken no position on the merits of immigration reform, but they have urged Congress to ensure that the bill doesn’t worsen the courts’ existing fiscal crisis.

The needs of courts may be hard for many Americans to appreciate, because most of us rarely are in court. As a longtime federal judge in the Western District of Texas, I worked eight years in the Pecos Division, which includes 420 miles of U.S.-Mexico border. I saw firsthand the strains on justice.

Immigration cases account for 27 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions, but three-quarters of those immigration cases occur in just five U.S. court districts — including the Southern and Western districts of Texas.

There, it is common for court days to stretch from early morning until 8 or 9 at night, with U.S. marshals leaving home before dawn and returning at midnight after shepherding detainees to and from court.

To save time, as many as 20 defendants might plead guilty in one hearing. The result can feel more like assembly-line justice than a court of law.

Under the immigration bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, these strains could get dramatically worse. In the Tucson, Ariz., area alone, bail and presentence investigations, and monitoring of those on supervised release, would require an estimated 367 new probation officers, at a cost to the courts of $37 million.

The federal judiciary has asked Congress to create new judgeships as part of any immigration reform. The judiciary also has urged funding for federal defenders — and for probation and pretrial officers, who protect the public by monitoring potentially dangerous offenders and defendants on release.

In the long run, greater attention is needed to enable our courts to meet all their constitutional and public safety missions, not just those caused by immigration enforcement.

Inadequate investment in the courts delays justice and hurts the public, which depends on courts for the timely resolution of disputes. Even worse, ill-considered cuts can create no-win choices for courts that actually inflate tax bills.

For instance, judges increasingly are being forced to imprison some defendants, solely because sequestration has reduced funding for mental-health screening and drug treatment. The resulting incarceration costs, borne by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, are more expensive than community supervision and treatment.

Federal courts receive less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget, but their public benefit is invaluable. As our nation’s leaders wrestle with immigration, and with future budgets, it is important that they, and the public, remember that justice cannot proceed without adequate resources for our Third Branch of government — the courts.

Royal Furgeson Jr. is a federal judge in the Northern District of Texas and currently sits in Dallas.

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