Gavel Grab

Sequestration Threatens Public Defenders’ Offices Nationwide

The automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect in March have substantially impacted the public sector nationwide. The judicial branch, in particular, has been hit especially hard by the cuts.

A report by Federal News Radio describes how—as part of the overall cuts to the judiciary branch— public defenders’ offices across the country face an overall budget decrease of $51 million this fiscal year, or 9% of their previous year’s budget. The immediate result has been vast budget shortfalls and up to 20 furlough days for public-defender employees. However, Michael Nachmanoff (pictured), the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia warns that if the budget cuts continue into 2014 at their projected rate, public defenders’ ability to fulfill their Constitutionally-mandated role could be undermined. 

Public defenders represent people who have been charged with crimes but are unable to afford an attorney—about 90% of defendants. However, according to Nachmanoff, this important role is likely to be compromised by the pressure from budget cuts. Already, Nachmanoff’s office has had to turn down resource-intensive cases such as those involving the death penalty and international fraud. The situation is “simply untenable,” he said. “The program really faces complete destruction unless both the Judiciary and Congress act very soon.”

Cuts to public defender programs have the potential to impinge to an individual’s right to a fair and speedy trial, especially since prosecutors’ offices under the Justice Department have not faced a corresponding level of budget decreases. Read more about ways in which sequestration and cuts to court funding are impacting the judicial system on Gavel Grab.

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