Sequester Strips Federal Public Defenders

Ebise Bayisa, an assistant federal public defender in Greenbelt, Maryland can’t appear in hearings for her clients every other Friday. She can’t schedule trial on those days either. On those days, she will not be meeting with clients to prepare for their defense. Like many other federal public defenders across the nation, Bayisa has been forced to take unpaid leave, called furlough days, every other Friday this year due to sequestrationautomatic spending cuts proposed by Congress because they could not agree on a plan to reduce government spending. Nationwide, public defenders will be forced to take up to 27 furlough days, days they will not spend in court or working on their client’s cases. Many courts have even gone to go so far as to simply close on furlough days to accommodate public defenders.

The Federal Public Defender program was established by the Supreme Court in 1963 after a ruling that all defendants facing serious crimes are entitled to a lawyer. While the federal courts face fewer cases than other courts, these cases are usually the most complex cases where indigent clients faces extended prison time.The sequester slashed the federal public defender budget by $53 million dollars—10 percent across the board. Describing the impact in her office, Bayisa says, "Each person has had to take a ten percent pay cut and we no longer have training for public defenders. Our equipment has not been upgraded, staff that’s left have not been replaced, and we’ve had to ask all our experts used on cases to also take a ten percent pay cut.” As the pressure increases to do more with less, Bayisa points out that, “ We can’t just do ten percent less work...we have a job to do, an incredibly important job.”

“It’s not clear what else there is to cut, other than people,” Bayisa continues. Indeed, with another broad cut expected to slash the Federal Defenders’ budgets by 23% in 2014,across the board layoffs of up to half of all existing staff at federal defender offices around the country are expected. Discussions have already begun about closing entire federal public defender offices in 20 states as early as next month.

Simply put, the effects of such a move are catastrophic. Further budget cuts means federal defenders' offices face losing the most senior staff with institutional knowledge, being forced to reduce their caseload and unable to attract new talent to public service. The defendants will be forced to bare the brunt of the consequences, however, as the quality of their representation is bound to suffer. And all because of sweeping and ill-conceived budget cuts made by a partisan Congress.

While the federal government is constitutionally mandated to provide the poorest among us with legal representation, that representation isn’t necessarily mandated to be affordable or effective. The ultimate irony of cutting the budget of the federal defenders under the guise of saving money is that it will increases the costs to taxpayers for private, court-appointed attorneys. Even when no public defender is available, the government is still required to provide legal representation to indigent clients. These private attorneys cost the taxpayer about 30% more than a public defender and, a recent study indicates, are less qualified and achieve worse outcomes for their clients.

Beyond the financial toll, the social toll of a criminal justice system made ineffective by ill-conceived budget cuts is that, inevitably, some innocent people will be imprisoned and some guilty people will go free. Based on her 5 years of experience,  Bayisa acknowledges that, “ My clients are people who are already on the margins of society and they have no one standing up for them.” 

In truth, the sequester has hit the nations' poor who depend on social services harder than any other group. Bayisa put it best: “The [sequester] further marginalizes marginalized people.” Unfortunately, even though Congress acted quickly to end a similar furlough of air traffic controllers  that they’d caused, they seem less interested in protecting the constitutional rights of the nation’s indigent.

France François is the award-winning blogger and strategic communicator behind the Black in Cairo blog. You can contact her at francefrancois7@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @FranceF3