Published on: Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Federal public defenders system could need to cut as many as 500 from its staff charged with protecting the rights of poor criminal defendants, because of a budgeting error by Congress that could leave it with a 3% to 5% shortfall, officials said (article available here).

That would mean a reduction of as many as 12% of the roughly 4,100 employees of the Federal Public and Community Defenders, the office that represents indigent federal criminal defendants, who could in turn be left to spend more time in jail awaiting trial.

The agency has already been found to be understaffed: A 2022 independent judiciary commission study found the offices need to add at least 250 more people to handle current case loads.

An appropriations bill moving through the Republican-led House of Representatives would reduce spending during the 2024 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 for federal public defender services by about $42 million.

A version drafted by the Democratic-controlled Senate would lead to a nearly $71 million cut.

The agency has already imposed a nationwide hiring freeze to brace for the cuts.

If federal defenders are too strapped to handle these cases, the burden shifts to private defense attorneys, who are often paid more and have less expertise.

Officials warn the resulting layoffs and furloughs for public defenders, along with possible cuts and delays to payments to the 8,000 private court-appointed lawyers nationwide, would be of the magnitude experienced in 2013 when similarly-sized belt-tightening was imposed by Congress.

That year, the 87 chief judges of federal district courts warned the reductions had "a devastating and long-lasting impact" on the criminal justice system.