Barbara Mandel has had a glimpse of the future at federal courthouses in the state, and it does not look good.
Mandel, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, predicts much longer waits to get criminal cases resolved, more appeals, greater risk of wrongful convictions, more custody time for defendants eligible for release and ultimately more expense – all from looming budget cuts.
Defender services is scheduled for a budget cut of 23 percent at the start of the new fiscal year in October.
“Cutting even further will result in a constitutional crisis,” she said.
The federal defender office, which represents individuals who are charged with crimes but lack enough money to hire an attorney, has about 60 attorneys and staff in two New Mexico offices. The office already has lost personnel as a result of sequestration, and has closed offices on some Fridays because of eight days of mandatory furlough, or unpaid leave, since May. The U.S. Supreme Court decided a half-century ago in Gideon v Wainwright that the right to counsel is rooted in the Constitution, and that those accused of crimes are guaranteed the right to counsel.
“Now, that right to counsel is being seriously eroded,” said Mandel, an assistant federal defender.
Although proportionately smaller than other federal defender offices, the New Mexico Federal Public Defender was the sixth-busiest in the country, behind only other border offices and the Central District of California, in fiscal year 2012. In 2013, it had the fourth-highest weighted caseload in the nation, she said.
Mandel said funds to train private lawyers appointed to handle cases the public defender can’t – for instance, in multidefendant cases, the office can represent only one of those charged – already have been cut. But more private lawyers will be getting cases, despite greater expense in the long run.
Prosecutors and law enforcement aren’t experiencing a comparable reduction, because they received funds from other sources to offset the problems from federal sequestration, or automatic spending cuts.
The public defender, however, is part of the court system, so the solution must come from Congress providing adequate funding for the judiciary.
Meanwhile, however, Congress has authorized 20,000 more Border Patrol agents along the southern border, Mandel noted, and an attorney has to represent those charged – most of them indigent.
“Who’s thinking about the cost of that?” she said.