African Americans Suffer Most, Say Public Defenders
Six days a week, Brandon Bassett follows the same routine – he never deviates – he sticks to a script.
Out of bed by 5:30 a.m., dressed by 6 a.m., and, following a quick bite to eat, his sister, Patricia Myers, drives him to work at a restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C.
"If my sister can't take me to work, I call a taxi, even though I really can't afford one," Bassett said.
After spending the better part of his adult life in prison, Bassett, 39, explained that he simply cannot trust anyone other than his older sister to drive him to work.
More than a decade ago, Bassett accepted a ride to his job from an acquaintance, who unbeknownst to him, had previously arranged a drug deal with a person who turned out to be an undercover agent.
He took the hit.
Jailed 14 years ago on federal drug charges, at the age of 25, Bassett is concerned that the sequester, which is decimating the federal public defender's office, will unjustly cost others long prison terms.
"It's bound to happen now that the public defender's office is facing layoffs and other cuts to their resources," said Bassett who lives in Southeast Washington, D.C.
"First, people cannot afford high-powered lawyers and only high-powered lawyers or the best public defenders can help you in court," he said. "They helped me even though I went to prison for something I really should not have, but the deck was stacked [against me]."
The proverbial deck now appears insurmountable, Bassett said, because the $85 billion in spending cuts that have come with the March 1 sequester, greatly impacts the public defender's office.
Locally, attorneys and personnel in the federal public defender's office are being laid off or furloughed because of the cuts, which are stifling the judicial system.
Now, the scales of justice are more out of balance than ever, particularly for African Americans who continue to be the primary guests of various states in federal prisons throughout the country.
"The scales of justice were already tipped, particularly along racial lines," said Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, which includes Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk.
The forced cuts have not only stripped Nachmanoff's office of lawyers, but also many of the resources it needs to help investigate cases and clear innocent defendants.
The United States Attorney's Office, which prosecutes defendants who are charged with federal crimes, isn't experiencing the same level of cuts and difficulties as the public defender's office, said Nachmanoff, 44.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office already has at its investigative disposal, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Justice, state, and local law enforcement investigators, so it is our office that suffers because of these cuts," he said.
In Washington, D.C., employees in the federal public defender's office are being forced to take as many as 27 days of unpaid leave by Oct. 1 due to the sequester. In Northern Virginia, the cuts currently are forcing up to three weeks of furloughs.
"This is terrible. The reduction in pay and the cutbacks are affecting everyone's work in the office," said A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender for the District of Columbia.
In Maryland, where cases already have been turned down that involved the hiring of expert witnesses or those that require extensive travel, public defenders this week have started to take up to 15 furlough days – which will be staggered throughout the year.
"It's a sad day for our justice system," said Maryland Public Defender James Wyda, 47.
Ironically, the cuts coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Gideon Decision, a landmark federal court case that provided and continues to provide defendants with the right to have an attorney appointed to them regardless of their ability to pay for legal representation.
"While they are celebrating that decision, the government is trying to eviscerate the system with these cuts," said Kramer, 38.
Despite the cuts, the government remains on the hook for the legal costs incurred by low-income defendants.
"The cuts make no sense because, in some cases the government has to pay these private attorneys more than it would cost to have my office represent the defendants," Kramer said.
Nationally, up to 2,000 court staffers are threatened with layoffs and furloughs because of the spending cuts, said Dennis Courtland Hayes, president of the American Judicature Society in Des Moines, Iowa, which works to preserve and improve the legal system.
Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan said the sequester cuts, "Strikes at the heart of our entire system of justice and spreads throughout the country."
"The longer the sequestration stays in place, the more severe will be its impact on the courts and those who use them," said Hogan, 75, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, D.C.
Further, Nachmanoff said, private attorneys may not be as equipped as his office is to handle the cases or specific issues that may come up during a trial.
"Some private firms don't have the resources, the time or even the experience for many of these cases that we get," said Nachmanoff, who recently turned down a death penalty case because his office simply didn't have the resources for the trial, he said.
The sequester and its impact on the justice system is certain to be felt by blacks, who already make up a larger portion of the prison population than they did at the time of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, said James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School and the son of the late civil rights leader, James Forman.
"Their lifetime risk of incarceration has doubled," said Forman, 46.
"As the United States has become the world's largest jailer and its prison population has exploded, black men have been particularly affected," Forman said.
"Today, black men are imprisoned at 6.5 times the rate of white men," he said.
Nachmanoff said his office at one time "represented thousands of people charged with federal crack cocaine offenses, 82 percent of whom were African American," he said.
The young public defender worked to change federal sentencing guidelines, which led to the immediate release of 1,500 small-time crack dealers.
"The severity of crack cocaine penalties based on drug type was unjustified and unfair, and had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, which created the widely held perception that the penalty structure promotes unwarranted disparity between races," Nachmanoff said.
Prior to the new guidelines being enacted in 2010, he said sentences imposed for crack were up to six times longer than for powdered cocaine.
Under the old guidelines, a person found with five grams of crack received a mandatory minimum sentence of five years while another person with 500 grams of powdered cocaine received the same sentence.
The discrepancy in sentencing runs the gamut.
Whites serve a mean sentence of 79 months for violent felony offenses while sentencing for blacks are 107 months for the same offenses, according to a report issued by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, whites serve a mean sentence of 23 months for felony weapons offenses while blacks serve a mean sentence of 36 months for the same crimes.
Overall, whites in prisons nationwide serve a mean time of 40 months, as compared to 58 months for blacks.
"This was one of the great stains on our federal criminal justice system," Nachmanoff said.
"The sequester threatens to create even more inequity for African Americans."