Decimating the Public Defender System

Former judges Paul Cassell and Nancy Gertner have an op-ed in today’s WSJ decrying the effects of budget constraints and sequestration on federal public defenders.  Here’s a taste:

due to the combination of general budget austerity and sequestration, the federal public defender system—a model of effective indigent defense for the past 40 years—is being decimated. As former federal judges from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, we both understand that these shortsighted cuts threaten not only to cripple the federal defender system, but to disrupt the entire federal judiciary—without producing the promised cost savings.

A decrease of nearly 10% in the federal public defender budget for 2013 has already resulted in layoffs and up to 20 days of furloughs in many federal defender offices. In a number of states, federal courts have been forced to delay criminal cases because of public defender furloughs and layoffs. . . .

These steep budget cuts will not save us money in the long term. Delays in trials require many defendants to spend more time in costly pretrial detention facilities. But the flow of criminal prosecutions has not abated, so the unavailability of public defenders will simply force courts to engage private attorneys more frequently. Most federal judicial districts have a public defender office and, in those districts, it is more cost effective to have the office handle a majority of cases.

Reducing funding for federal defender budgets means that the remaining federal defenders have less time and fewer resources with which to investigate cases, conduct legal research and hire expert witnesses. This loss severely compromises their ability to represent their client at trial, destroying the adversarial process at the heart of our system. Without balanced, vigorously litigated cases, wrongful convictions may become more common, imprisoning the innocent and allowing the guilty to walk free.