The Secondary Effect of Sequestration

At HuffPo, Ryan Reilly writes about the devastation sequestration is wreaking on the federal defenders:

The public defender system hasn’t just been stripped bare by sequestration, its bones have been chiseled away as well. There has been a 9 percent reduction in the roughly $1 billion budget for federal public defender’s offices, while federal defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices. Careers have been ended and cases have been delayed. All of it has occurred in the name of deficit reduction — and yet, for all the belt-tightening being demanded of the nation’s public defenders, money is not actually being saved.

That it’s not actually saving money is a political point, yet again showing how simplistic notions applauded by the shallow prove ineffective. The flip side of shallow thinking is that the easy answer is that convictions will be reversed, cases tossed, for ineffective assistance or speedy trial grounds. Unlikely, but even if it happens, it’s just a short-term reaction.

Hidden in Reilly’s quote is the deeper devil, that “its bones have been chiseled away.”

But public defenders also protect the rights of the accused by taking on more than 10,000 criminal cases annually. Without them, the adversarial system of justice would lack basic integrity. So it’s been alarming for the legal community at large — and not just the public defender community specifically — to watch sequestration drain public defender’s offices of some of their more seasoned officials.

It will come as a shock to some people that the men and women who serve as federal defenders eat food, live in homes, have children who get hungry every day. When they go to the supermarket, they have to pay the cashier just like everyone else. The gas pumps that fill their cars demand payment. They are not priests of the law, swearing an oath of poverty.

Unlike others, say assistant United States attorneys for example, whose budgets haven’t been touched by sequestration, they aren’t particularly well-paid and need that paycheck every two weeks to fill the stomachs of their children.  When it doesn’t come, or has fewer zeroes than it’s supposed to, something has to give.

The best and brightest, the most experienced and competent, are being forced to wave adieu to their pals for greener pastures. It’s not that they don’t love their work or that they are greedy, selfish people; they need to survive and there wasn’t enough give in their income to suffer the consequences of sequestration cuts. They’re doing what they have to do.

Once they leave the office, they will be gone. The federal defenders will lose their best lawyers.

The day will come when Congress grows a pair and deals with its infantile inability to do what’s best for the country in furtherance of political party hegemony. We’ve gone through inane partisanship before in this country and come out the other end, when we finally get a leader who actually lives the words he speaks.  But the devastation wrought during the time when the children were too busy behaving poorly will be the legacy we will be forced to live with.

If sequestration only lasted a month, everybody might have waited it out, suffered a bit, and then returned to normal on the other side. But it’s gone on too long, and the price is now being calculated. Many of the best federal defenders are getting jobs where they know what their paychecks will say, and know that they will go to work every day, not just when they aren’t furloughed. Some of those who remain are there because they had no option to leave. That’s not a ringing endorsement of their abilities. No, I’m not suggesting that everybody who stays is a lousy lawyer, not be a long shot, but that there will be devastation in the ranks.

How long will it take before the effects of sequestration aren’t felt throughout the defense side of the system? Five years after it’s over? Ten? It takes a long time to restaff, to gain the experience of those being chased away by the cost of living.

On the bright side, it’s not like the prosecution has to suffer the indignity of hunger. They remain well-fed, and have a bright future as a biglaw partner or corporate wank to look forward to. A few years of hunger now will pay off well later, since everybody wants a former federal prosecutor on their team. Just the title alone makes clients open their wallets.

Former federal defender doesn’t have nearly the same cache.

Some will respond, “so what? Who cares if the defendants don’t get top of the line lawyers. Isn’t it enough that poor people get a free lawyer at all?”  Gideon enjoyed its 50th birthday recently, and people still ponder why the representation of the indigent accused should be a public burden.

No wonder why there isn’t much concern about the secondary effects of sequestration on the federal defenders. People don’t even care about the primary effects.


13 thoughts on “The Secondary Effect of Sequestration

  1. John Neff

    They said that “Nobody in their right mind would allow sequestration to happen.” That means that the set of members of congress in their right mind is a null set. We elected them and we got what we desreved.

    1. SHG Post author

      Once it happened and the public didn’t revolt, I bet Congress couldn’t believe its good luck in having such a docile and ignorant electorate. And that being the case, no reason to fix it as inertia is the most politically benign and acceptable policy there is.

  2. Alex Bunin

    In response, my former neighbor in Mobile: says, “We don’t have the money to run the government, and we’re not just going to raise taxes every time, ” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). This from a man who grew the U.S. Attorney’s Office there by several times in support of the war on drugs when he was USA.

  3. Paul B.

    In my state there are defendants in murder cases rotting in jail for years because the counties do not want to spend the money to provide a competent defense (and the state/county public defenders here make about half the salary of the federal defenders). One state supreme court justice suggested that defense attorneys in capital cases could work without pay and just get paid later when the money “becomes available.” Of course no one is suggesting that judges and prosecutors not get paid.

  4. BL1Y

    “It will come as a shock to some people who the men and women who serve as federal defenders eat food, live in homes, have children who get hungry every day.”

    So they need what? $5-10 a day for Tru Blood, they paid off their homes probably a century ago, and if they have children they can’t feed, I dunno, maybe stop making new baby vampires?

  5. LTMG

    Properly done, a sequester would have no effect on the ability to deliver services to the public. The chief error was in demanding immediate reduction in spending. It is necessary to ramp up to a reduction in spending. People must be trained, and then they must go looking for ways to reduce spending without affecting the timely delivery of goods and services, without reducing quality. There is a learning curve associated with achieving enduring spending reductions. From many years of experience resulting in saving over $70 million, it is rather easy for an organization with little or no experience tightly controlling costs to achieve 10% to 15% reduction in annualized spending within 18 months.

  6. Canvasback

    A fully costed F-35 joint strike fighter is somewhere around $150 million. Do we really need 2500 of them? Is one jet a better defense of our freedoms (cough) than a fully staffed Federal defender’s system? Seems like we’re dumbing down the keen edge of liberty to buy whiz-bang toys.

    1. SHG Post author

      Comparisons like this always strike me as apples and oranges. Regardless of whether we need F-35 fighters, and I have no idea if we do, if we need 2500 of them, we need federal defenders too.

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