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Federal criminal lawyers struggle with funding crunch

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingBudget Control Act of 2011Unemployment and Layoffs

The Cecil County man, convicted in a prescription pill case, was due to be sentenced in federal court last spring — until his attorney made an embarrassing admission to the judge: The federal defender's office could not afford to pay for documents the lawyer said he would need to represent his client.

"The transcripts which I believe require my review would cost nearly $1,700," federal defender Gary W. Christopher wrote in his request for more time. "The present budget situation of our office requires us to scrutinize carefully every proposed expenditure."

Christopher, who called the request "distasteful and frankly embarrassing," eventually found a work-around, but the lack of funds has left his client in limbo for months — he still has not been sentenced.

Officials say the episode is just one example of the financial challenges faced by lawyers on both sides of the federal justice system under the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester — and they warn that conditions could worsen in the coming fiscal year.

For the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, that could mean taking fewer of the most violent criminals off the street. And for federal public defenders, it could mean greater difficulty in protecting the rights of those charged with federal crimes.

The U.S. attorney's office, part of the Department of Justice, employs 81 prosecutors with a budget of $17.9 million last year, down from $18.6 million the year before.

The federal defenders' operation, funded by the judiciary, is more modest, with a staff of 23 trial lawyers and a budget of about $11 million in 2013, which the sequester cut by 9 percent.

The funding deal that ended the federal government shutdown included an added $26 million for defender services nationwide in 2014. But that is not enough to make up for the sequester cuts, and no new money was pumped into the Justice Department, meaning that the problems are likely to continue.

In the pill case, Christopher chanced upon a novel solution for his client, David John Graham. An attorney representing another defendant in the case said his client would be filing an appeal, at which point the trial transcripts would be available for free, saving the $1,700 — the equivalent of three furlough days for an employee in the office.

Conditions are much the same at federal prosecutors' and defenders' offices around the country, and both sides are calling for Congress to restore funding.

Prosecutors and defenders say they are suffering under the fiscal crunch, but the defenders say they are faring worse because they have almost no control over their workload — about 1,900 cases in Maryland last year, or two-thirds of the total brought by prosecutors — and have had to furlough staff on 14 Fridays in the past fiscal year.

Budget cuts led the office to decline to take two complex cases, said James Wyda, the federal defender for Maryland, and slowed the handling of about a dozen more.

The office's lawyers are required to defend anyone who cannot afford a lawyer. Despite its fluctuating workload, the office operates on a fixed budget. Cases it cannot take on are farmed out to a panel of private lawyers funded separately by the judiciary.

Wyda said those private attorneys are good advocates for their clients, but using them is not cost-effective in the long run.

"The only thing that can happen is that we put our nation's criminal justice system at risk for no real economic gain. You can't sequester the Sixth Amendment," he said, referring to the constitutional right to counsel.

The private attorneys agreed to a pay cut and to delay paydays until the beginning of the new fiscal year, meaning that a large chunk of the next budget will be required to reimburse them.

John D. Bates, the secretary of the U.S. Judicial Conference — the policymaking body of the judiciary for court administration — said the effect on lawyers for poor defendants is "the most significant impact" of the budget cuts.

"The only options for absorbing the more than $50 million cut to the Defender Services account are reducing ... staffing levels through layoffs and furloughs, or deferring or reducing payments to private ... attorneys," Bates wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said the cuts are hurting his understaffed office. But unlike federal defenders, prosecutors have greater control over the workload.

"The number of cases that you can prosecute and the speed that you can prosecute them is limited by the number of attorneys and staff you have on board," Rosenstein said. That could mean delays in bringing to justice the serious violent criminals the office usually pursues.

Spending cuts, Rosenstein said, "are significantly curtailing our operations."

Rosenstein said the Justice Department has told his office to be prepared to lose as many as 15 more of his assistants if funding continues at levels required by the sequester — a loss he said "would be really devastating."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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