WASHINGTON — Faced with steep budget cuts, federal public defenders around the country have furloughed or laid off hundreds of lawyers and other staff members, spent less on expert witnesses and cut back on travel.
The cuts for fiscal 2014, which begin Oct. 1, will most likely result in staff reductions of 30 to 50 percent, they said. And some public defenders are even considering closing their offices.
The result, said lawmakers, judges and public defenders, are court delays that might violate defendants' rights to speedy trials and lead to the dismissal of cases.
Defenders and judges say the federal public defenders system is buckling under the effects of the $85 billion across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, threatening the integrity of the criminal justice system, which guarantees the right to a court-appointed lawyer for those who cannot afford one.
The 81 defender offices across the country, which represent 60 percent of criminal defendants in the federal court system, have seen their budgets cut 10 percent because of the sequester and other reductions this year and could face up to a 23 percent cut in 2014. Additional cost-cutting measures may result in a smaller cut, around 10 percent.
While federal defenders have had to cut the number of cases they handle, the Justice Department is increasing the number of cases it brings to court and also hiring staff.
With the cuts to the public defenders program, courts have to rely more on private court-appointed lawyers. These lawyers are paid from the same budget as the public defenders. But they cost more since they are paid by the hour, and they tend to be less experienced and less effective, according to studies.
A group of 40 former judges and prosecutors urged Congress to fully finance the program.
Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a letter to the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which oversees the budget, also raised concerns.
The conference announced Aug. 16 that it would try to keep staffing of the public defenders program at current levels by delaying payments to court-appointed private lawyers and reducing by $15 an hour the rate at which they were paid.
The move would limit the 2014 cuts to the federal defenders program to about 10 percent, instead of 23 percent.
Even so, Judge William Traxler, chairman of the judicial conference's executive committee, called the measures "undesirable."