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Federal defenders facing layoffs

Wed., July 3, 2013

Budget cuts will be drastic, they warn

Federal budget cuts totaling 23 percent over two years could mean attorneys who are appointed to represent the poorest defendants in Eastern Washington’s federal court will receive pink slips in the next four months.

Andrea George, executive director of Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, said she will be forced to lay off employees, if the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.

She could not say how many attorneys could lose their jobs, but many federal public defender offices are either closing or losing up to half of their attorneys following a 9 percent budget cut this year and a looming 14 percent cut for fiscal year 2014.

“While the situation is bad for the federal defender’s office, the situation is bad for the whole judiciary in that cuts have been across the board without any consideration for those offices and agencies that are using their money very wisely,” George said.

The result, the lawyers say, will be drastic layoffs for public defenders, expensive case delays and costly appeals – all for nothing, as pricier private attorneys are expected to step in to fill the void at government expense. Since local and federal law ensures that everyone has the right to an attorney, the proposed budget cut will mean that private attorneys must be appointed to represent those cases that otherwise would be handled by federal defenders.

“Absent some immediate action, federal defenders will begin the process this summer of laying off between a third and half of their staff,” said a memo prepared by several federal public defenders. “They will begin closing many offices. The cuts will result in irreparable damage to the criminal justice system, and paradoxically, greater expense to the taxpayer as indigent defendants are increasingly assigned private counsel.”

According to the study conducted by federal defenders, it will cost taxpayers $2.8 million more a year to have private attorneys handle cases that would have gone to federal defenders in Eastern Washington, which was included in the nationwide study.

Congress provides about $1 billion for the representation of criminal defendants who can’t afford their own lawyer. The money is split evenly between the federal public defender program, which was established in 1970, and private attorneys, who are generally paid $125 an hour to represent defendants who can’t be represented by the public defenders because of conflicts of interest or other reasons.

Under this year’s cuts, some public defenders lost their jobs and the rest are taking up to 20 days of unpaid leave.

In New York, the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was delayed because the public defenders who were representing him had to take furloughs, and in Boston, the lawyers for the surviving marathon bombing suspect have had to do it amid unpaid time off.

The only real solution, said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is to replace sequestration, which was supposed to be so unpalatable that Congress would never let it happen.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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