Sequestering Justice

gavel_jarofcoinsAs widespread federal spending cuts known as sequestration continue to impact various government agencies, leading to, among other things, furloughs and closures, we can expect to see particularly dire consequences for our courts and the administration of justice. The PBEye recently reported that our criminal justice system is in jeopardy, and the sharp budget reductions for Federal Defender programs have even further threatened legal services for the poor.

For example, sequestration has led to furloughs and layoffs of public defenders across the country, which reduces case loads and causes trial delays, diminishing the overall quality of legal representation. Cases that would normally be handled by public defenders will more frequently be placed with private-practice lawyers pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act. These lawyers are more expensive, yet often lack the same level of expertise as public defenders.

In addition to the negative impact on the Federal Defender program, sequestration has reduced funding for the judiciary by almost $350 million. It is anticipated that nationwide up to 2,000 federal court employees could be laid off this fiscal year or face furloughs. As Chief Justice John G. Roberts observed, because the judiciary has already pursued aggressive cost-containment measures, it will be increasingly difficult to make additional cutbacks without reducing the quality of judicial services. Indeed, in many jurisdictions that may already be happening. Each court decides how to implement funding cuts, and some are already closing the doors one day each week and/or furloughing court staff, which, in addition to the Federal Public Defenders’ office, includes the U.S. Marshals Services and the U.S. Attorneys office. The 2014 fiscal year begins on October 1, and unless preventative action is taken, additional cuts would even further compromise an already damaged justice system.

Although many Americans seem to be paying very little attention to the sequester, we in the pro bono community need to heighten our awareness and engagement and redouble our efforts to promote access to justice.