Sequester Hits Federal Court System Hard

Stacy M. Brown | 4/10/2013, 9 p.m.
Jailed 14 years ago on federal drug charges, at the age of 25, Brandon Bassett is concerned that the sequester, ...

"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.