Budget Deal ‘Stops the Bleeding’ in Federal Defender Program, But More Funding Needed

The eleventh hour budget deal approved by Congress on October 17 provided enough funds to the federal defender program to prevent further damage, but it serves merely as a stopgap measure against further cuts.

The legislation reopening the government provides an extra $26 million over Fiscal Year 2013 funding levels for attorneys who represent indigent defendants charged with a federal crime. However, the bipartisan deal does not allocate enough resources to restore federal defender offices to their pre-sequestration staffing or budget levels, nor will it protect offices from further furloughs, because much of the extra money will need to be used to cover delayed payments for legal services already performed by court-appointed contract attorneys.

“While we are grateful budget negotiators recognized the need to stop the bleeding in the public defenders offices, Congress will need to provide much higher levels of funding when they pass a budget if they want to allow federal defenders to carry out their constitutionally required duties,” said TCP president Virginia Sloan in a press release.

Sequestration resulted in a nearly ten percent cut in the federal public defender budget for FY2013 that has resulted in layoffs and up to 20 days of furloughs in many federal defender offices. In a number of states, federal courts have been forced to delay criminal cases because of public defender furloughs and layoffs.

“Full funding of federal defenders is necessary to prevent a ripple effect that will further clog judicial dockets, undermine the efficiency of a federal defender system and deny lower-income defendants their constitutional right to counsel,” Sloan said.

TCP has advocated for the full restoration of funding to the federal defenders program. On September 17, The Constitution Project, along with 26 other nonpartisan groups, sent a letter urging Congress to provide proper resources for the federal judiciary, including federal defenders.

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