Cutting the Federal Defender Budget: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

I’m glad Orin posted about the startling impact of the sequestration on the federal public defenders. For those interested in the numbers underlying some of the claims in the Huffington Post story, I thought I would direct readers toward this fact sheet prepared by the Federal Defenders, and entered into the record at yesterday’s Senate hearing.

Two things stood out to me:

1: Eighty percent of the Federal Defenders budget is personnel (page 4), and many of the other costs are fixed, so the vast majority of budget cuts have to come in the form of staff reductions — layoffs, furloughs, failure to replace those who leave. Given the heavy workloads federal defenders have already, that almost inevitably means taking fewer cases.

2: The Federal Defenders are a lot cheaper than the other method of appointing counsel — lawyers appointed under the Criminal Justice Act. There’s a stark table on page 3, but in a nutshell, the Federal Defenders cost around 71% per case of what an appointed attorney does. Because of the constitutional guarantee of appointed counsel, these cases have to be defended either way, but a shortfall in the Federal Defender budget will quickly translate into much bigger costs to the taxpayer in the end.

[UPDATE: I mentioned before, but perhaps ought to mention again, that I am married to an assistant federal defender. My comments are my own, however, and do not reflect the views of the defender organizations or their employees.]