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Cuts put basic legal rights in jeopardy

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If you called the New Mexico Federal Defender’s Office last Friday, you were sent to voice mail. If you visited a federal courthouse in New Mexico, normally busy courtrooms were dark because, without the defense attorneys, virtually no criminal cases could be heard.

Justice was on unpaid furlough, and will be every other Friday through the end of September if Congress does not provide the funds to keep America’s courts and federal public defenders operating.

Sequestration – the automatic spending cuts triggered by Congress’ failure to pass a budget – has disproportionately impacted the federal courts. The judicial branch receives just two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget. With that minuscule amount, the federal courts provide core constitutional and statutory functions.

The judiciary does not have the luxury of choosing its workload. It must adjudicate all criminal and civil cases filed in the federal courts, protect the community by supervising defendants awaiting trial and on post-conviction release, pay jurors who perform their civic duty and provide counsel for defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

Funding cuts impact public safety by reducing the number of probation officers to supervise criminal defendants and by reducing funding for drug testing and mental health treatment. Courthouse safety is compromised by reductions in court security.

The criminal justice system has been particularly hard hit.

The District of New Mexico is among the nation’s busiest. In FY 2012, New Mexico’s federal judges sentenced more than 3,000 defendants, most of whom were indigent.

The federal courts are constitutionally mandated to provide competent counsel to such defendants. This expense is not discretionary; 90 percent of federal defendants qualify for appointed counsel. Most are represented by federal defenders.

The national federal defender program has requested slightly more than $1 billion annually, or less than .05 percent of total federal spending, to be fully funded in FY 2014. In contrast, the Department of Justice has requested $26.7 billion for FY 2014.

The federal defender program is cost-effective. Numerous studies confirm that it provides high-quality, effective representation while saving taxpayer money.

If the federal defenders are not adequately funded, the program cannot represent as many people and the courts will not be as efficient.

The sequester is having a severe effect in New Mexico.

New Mexico Federal Public Defender Steve McCue announced last month that the only way to further reduce spending was to mandate that the office’s 29 attorneys and 31 staff take 12 unpaid days of leave. The office already has four unfilled positions and is anticipating that more people will retire.

This year, the Department of Justice was able to reallocate more than $321 million of FY 2013 funds and leftover FY 2012 funds to avoid furloughing a single employee for a single day.

Ironically, sequestration will increase costs.

The constitutional mandate to provide counsel does not go away if the federal defenders cannot take cases. Instead, the government must pay private lawyers at greater public cost. Delays in court proceedings mean that accused persons who might be on supervised release while awaiting trial instead will be jailed, which costs more than supervision.

Civil litigants will be impacted because delays in the handling of the criminal docket will affect the court’s ability to expeditiously adjudicate civil matters, ranging from bankruptcies to Social Security appeals.

The United States courts provide access to justice, protect against abuses of power, and defend the Constitution. The rights to be heard, to a speedy and public trial, and to effective assistance of counsel in criminal cases are cornerstones of our democracy.

The budget sequestration imperils fundamental rights by damaging the courts and agencies that protect those rights. A mere $60 million in additional funding in FY 2013 to America’s federal defender offices would prevent further delays and shifting of cases to private attorneys at greater taxpayer expense.

These core principles of American democracy should not be placed on hold every other week.

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