With the Federal Defender Service Account taking massive budget cuts — even as the Department of Justice enjoys a veritable bounty of funding — investigators are being forced to use their limited resources wisely and sparingly.
On February 27, 2013, Judge Thomas F. Hogan, Director of the Administrative Offices for the U.S. Courts, issued a memorandum stating that the Federal Defender Services Account was slated to be cut by a whopping $53 million.
These budget shortfalls have forced many federal defender offices to lay off experienced administrators and attorneys, leaving behind an even heavier workload for their already overextended colleagues.
To put this problem in perspective, consider the fact that federal defenders already handle a much steeper caseload than state prosecutors. A 2013 report by The Constitution Project points out, for example, that in New York State, the ratio of prosecutors to defenders is 280 to 38 — a proportion greater than 7 to 1. Yikes.
In addition to laying off employees and closing branch offices, federal defenders will be forced to make significant cutbacks on a variety of essential services. Resources for experts, interpreters, and court transcripts will undoubtedly be slashed, as well as investigatory funds, like travel costs for reviewing crime scenes and interviewing witnesses.
What’s happening, essentially, is that an already unbalanced system is devolving into an unconstitutional mess. In a 2013 article in the Atlantic, a Federal Public Defender who wished to remain anonymous explained, “Sequestration has hit the truly indigent clients of the Federal Defender particularly hard.”
The attorney voiced concerns over the fact that funds were being cut for translators, mental health professionals, and psychiatric experts, cuts that would necessarily jeopardize the rights of Spanish-speaking and mentally ill defendants.
As Arizona Federal Defender John Sands points out, “The impact of sequestration in criminal justice further makes the playing field uneven, with DOJ able to shift resources, while we can’t.”
The inevitable outcome of the federal sequester is painfully obvious: the filing of even more Habeas Corpus petitions. As if the courts were not already plagued with claims of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel and Due Process Violations, the government will only be forced to spend additional resources on the remedy for a problem it’s creating by slashing funding and resources at the trial level.
And so the cycle perpetuates itself. At the end of the day, this wasteful circle slows down the entire court system and proves utterly detrimental to our nation’s judicial process as a whole.
Short Term Solutions
There’s no easy way out of this situation. For now, public defenders need to allocate their resources as wisely as possible — for many court cases and Habeas petitions alike, success is largely dependent upon an effective attorney-investigator relationship. Seeking out experienced, reliable, and dedicated investigators is critical in order for public defense offices to allocate funds responsibly and effectively.
Integrated Security Services provides clients with a dedicated case manager who guarantees attention to detail and strong communication — two elements crucial to winning cases. Integrated has streamlined the investigatory process, incorporating the most efficient methodologies and technologies in order to obtain all of the essential facts and verify their validity.
Until the issues the sequester has created are addressed, it will be up to the public defenders and investigators themselves to adapt and evolve in order to overcome these obstacles and ensure that our justice system remains just. It will just be a heck of a lot easier if they choose the right tools to help them get the job done.