Government officials say sequestration cuts make federal court system more expensive

Posted Sunday, Aug. 04, 2013  Print Reprints

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North Texas attorneys who defend the indigent in federal court have been forced to take between 12 and 15 furlough days during the past four months because of sequestration cuts.

Sequestration, the automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts imposed by Congress that went into effect in March, has led to a shortage of public defenders who represent the poor. To fill in the gaps, the courts are hiring more expensive private attorneys to take some cases, a move that has wiped out some of the savings the government had hoped for, said Jason Hawkins, the attorney who runs the North Texas Public Defenders Office, which covers a 96,000-square-mile region stretching from Fort Worth to the Panhandle.

The 18-attorney office lost three attorneys and two investigators between April and July because of the cuts. Two attorneys resigned because they couldn’t withstand the loss of income from the furloughs. Another attorney and two investigators took early retirement and lessened the financial burden on the office, Hawkins said.

“It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Hawkins. “Having a panel lawyer can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 more a case. The argument that this is actually costing us more money has not yet had an effect.”

Next year, the situation is expected to get worse.

The cuts for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2012, and ends Sept. 30, were 10.2 percent in the public defender’s office. Hawkins said he anticipates a 23 percent budget cut during the upcoming fiscal year.

“If it is 23 percent of our budget we will have to lay off about one-third of our folks,” Hawkins said. “At the beginning of fiscal year 2013, we were given a budget of more than $6.2 million. In March, I was told to cut the budget to nearly $5.7 million, and I was given until the end of September to implement the cuts. The only way to accomplish this was to furlough people.”

“For fiscal year 2014, [which begins in October, 2013] I was given a projected budget of $6.3 million. In June, I was told to plan to reduce that figure by 23 percent. This means that if Congress does not approve additional funding for 2014, I will be reducing the budget from $6.3 million to $4.9 million. The only way this can be accomplished is through massive layoffs in October.”

Government workers say sequestration cuts have had other unintended consequences throughout the justice system and are turning a historically frugal operation into one that’s less efficient and more costly to operate. The proposition that these cuts could actually increase spending raises questions for some lawmakers about the intended results.

“The United States faces a serious budget crisis, but blindly making across-the-board spending cuts — as sequestration did — is not the right approach,” U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth said in an email. “Like businesses and families do in tough economic times, we need to prioritize.”

Some federal court offices have had to shuffle budgeting realities faster than others. Deborah Anne Czuba, a public defender in Pine Bluff, Ark., had her last day on the job July 26. Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said Czuba was a victim of the sequester and that Congress should be ashamed of itself after he granted an order for Czuba’s motion to withdraw as an attorney in a capital murder case.

Czuba, a single parent with an 18-month-old daughter who has been a public defender for more than 18 years, said she is terrified at the thought of having to look for another job.

“I was a big supporter of President [Barack] Obama and I was really disappointed with him this week,” Czuba said. “To see him talking about how things are turning around was really hard.”

Federal probation officials said sequestration will result in more detentions and less community supervision or probation offered to suspects and offenders. According to testimony from Judge Julia Gibbons of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, community supervision costs less than $10 a day while federal detention costs $70 to $80 a day.

Gibbons also testified that offenders on community supervision can get a job, pay fines, restitution and taxes and complete community service requirements that are often imposed by the courts, opportunities not available to people in prison.

“The sequester is slowing the pace, increasing the cost, and potentially eroding the quality of the delivery of justice,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee. “The irony is that cuts to the Judicial Branch … don’t actually save taxpayers any money. The cases will still be adjudicated, just at a slower pace and at a higher cost.”

Federal courts hear a wide range of cases, including murder, kidnapping, bank robbery, tax evasion and embezzlement. Clerks in the federal system said that cash from the fines they collect — the seizure funds they redistribute to local law enforcement departments and the restitution payments they funnel to crime victims — will flow more slowly under sequestration.

Federal prosecutors maintain the cash they generate for federal and local budgets also will be slowed as a result of sequestration. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Texas collected more than $38 million from criminal and civil actions, and an additional $5 million in criminal and civil forfeitures in fiscal year 2012.

The U.S. Attorney’s office recorded a $3 million budget cut for the current fiscal year. Fourteen percent of its attorney positions and 15 percent of its support staff positions are vacant due to sequestration cuts.

Federal court employees maintain that the real threat from the cuts, however, is a decrease to security and the public’s access to the courts.

“This is not just a philosophical discussion for the people in Washington, D.C., and this is not just about money,” said Sarah Saldaña, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. “We are talking about public safety.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3