The sequester has hit all areas of federal and state governments since it took effect in early 2013. However, some aspects of government have been hit harder than some. The public defender system is one of those vital services that is now seeing the harsh effects of sequestration.
According to The Huffington Post, the federal public defender system has seen a 9 percent reduction in the $1 billion budget for the federal public defender’s offices. In over 20 states, federal public defender offices are preparing to close due to severe budget cuts.
The Huffington Post reports that the intended effect from the $85 billion sequester was to get lawmakers to design a budget that works through cuts that were onerous as well as harsh. However, the sequester never achieved this goal, and offices ranging from national to local government are suffering as a result.
The role of public defenders in today’s justice system is to protect the constitutional rights of those accused of crime who cannot afford the services of a private attorney. Without the assistance of a public defender, these legal defendants will be forced to face the legal system alone.
It is expected that the number of federal public defenders to be laid off will be between one-third and one-half of their staffs. According to The Huffington Post, about 2,700 jobs will be lost over the next two years.
However, despite the cuts, public defenders still strive to produce quality work. The sequester has simply forced them to do the same quality of work with less resources.
“We have a constitutional duty and ethical obligation to make sure we don’t do a shitty job for our clients,” said Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender in the Eastern District of Virginia told The Huffington Post.
One attorney laid off in March in the Middle District of Florida asked federal public defender Donna Lee Elm if he could just stay and keep working without pay, which he did until he found another job.
A federal public defender laid off in March of 2013 in the Middle District of Florida, Donna Lee Elm, requested that he stay and keep working on his cases without pay until he found another job. “These people are wonderful,” Elm told The Huffington Post. “The sequestration is having a really bad impact, but I’m determined to not let it hurt our clients. But there’ll be less and less clients I can take.”
Not only have public defenders have had to do with less, many of them are forced to take on a much lighter case load, The Huffington Post reports. Many courts have also closed their doors on certain days to accommodate the lighter case loads and public defenders who have been furloughed due to the sequester.
The effect of the sequester is hitting more high-profile cases, as well. According to The Huffington Post public defenders have been forced to ask for delays in the federal case against Osama bin Laden’s nephew and alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev because of furloughs.
In the upcoming fiscal year, public defender’s offices are preparing to see a 14 percent cut budget. This past year they experienced a 9 percent cut.
“We’ve gotten a series of memos and emails that say a 23 percent cut is possible, we’ve gotten another series of emails that say a 14 to 18 percent cut is very likely and to plan for both, and I don’t know how you plan for both,” said Christine Freeman, the executive director of Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama told The Huffington Post. “I guess we have a plan A, B and C and none of those plans are real pleasant.”