Federal public defenders will begin taking furloughs this week because of forced spending cuts, raising concerns that reduced schedules will strain an already overburdened court system and compromise rights to adequate counsel and speedy trial.
In one of the first direct effects of budget cuts known as the sequester on Maryland's sizable federal workforce, U.S. public defenders will take 15 furlough days this fiscal year, beginning on Friday.
Officials including James Wyda, federal public defender for the district of Maryland, said cutbacks not only place a financial strain on the public workers but stress an indigent defense system. Critics have lambasted the reductions as unconstitutional and warned that they would unfairly impact defendants waiting — many behind bars — for their day in court.
While many federal workers are facing furloughs, "it's a very different story when the person being furloughed has a constitutional duty to defend another person's freedom," said Professor Doug Colbert of the University of Maryland School of Law.
Federal agencies across government have been rolling back budgets to account for across-the-board cuts that took effect last month, with impacts on a range of services from parks to airports. Many worker furloughs haven't taken effect yet as agencies negotiate with unions.
The nation's court system, including federal defenders, must absorb $350 million in spending cuts. The sequester cuts also affect spending for probation officers, court clerks, court security and information technology programs, according to federal court administrators.
In addition, the Justice Department has to take a $1.6 billion sequester cut, with about $100 million coming from the budget for U.S. attorneys, according to the agency. No decision has been made about whether Maryland's attorneys will be furloughed.
It's up to local courthouses to decide exactly how to handle the reductions. Around the country, judges have reduced schedules on Fridays, for instance.
In Maryland, there are no planned closures for the state's federal courts because of furloughs, but Chief U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow said it's "a very fluid situation."
U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake of Maryland, who oversees federal public defenders, said furloughs mean they will have fewer days to prepare cases, which gives them less time to forge relationships with clients, investigate cases and meet deadlines. Public defenders also will have a reduced budget for case research.
"It's going to cause delays and postponements in criminal proceedings, and it ultimately can affect the quality of the representation provided," Blake said.
Nationally, federal public defenders are faced with cuts totaling about $43 million, said Charles Hall, spokesman for the administrative office for U.S. Courts. He said the cuts are expected to delay assignment of counsel and slow payments to court-appointed private attorneys, who are typically called in when the public defender's office has a conflict of interest in a case.
In Maryland, the federal public defender's office faces a 5 percent spending cut, a reduction of about $500,000, Wyda said. That's on top of a funding crunch his agency already has confronted, which has led to staff reductions, canceled training sessions and the postponement of equipment purchases, he said.
For the fiscal year through September, the median time for a criminal case in Maryland federal court to go from start to sentencing was 13.5 months, according to data from the federal judiciary website.
Aside from taking unpaid leave, Maryland's federal public defenders won't be able to take cost-intensive cases, in which lawyers need to obtain depositions from witnesses across the country, for instance. Those cases will be given to court-appointed private attorneys.
Currently, the state's 30 federal public defenders handle about 75 percent of the cases in which defendants do not have their own counsel, Wyda said, and the other 25 percent go to court-appointed attorneys. Donna Shearer, who supervises these lawyers in Maryland, declined to comment on how sequestration would affect them.
David Rocah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the judiciary is likely to run out of money to pay the private attorneys, too.
"I think this is a slow-moving disaster in progress," he said.
Virginia Sloan, president and founder of the Constitution Project, an organization pushing to reform the criminal justice system, said the cutbacks are "a clear violation of the Sixth Amendment," which guarantees a defendant counsel and a speedy trial. She noted that no one is lobbying to ensure that criminals have adequate representation.
"The courts are trying to do the best they can, but when it comes to constitutional rights, you can't just say, 'We don't have the money, so sorry,'" Sloan said.
"There needs to be somebody who's worried about these people," she said of defendants who have been accused but not convicted and are sitting in jail. "It's a disgrace."