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Furloughs, Layoffs, Delays: Sequester Hits Public Defenders In Mass.

BOSTON — Boston’s federal court is a busy place right now. With the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger and the proceedings against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, there are often big crowds at the waterfront building in South Boston.

But many of those who work in the building are struggling to deal with federal budget cuts.

Miriam Conrad, who leads the federal public defenders office for the districts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, joined WBUR to talk about the impact of the sequester. She says the cuts could force her office to lay off between 25 and 35 percent of its staff, in about a month.

Miriam Conrad: Here in Massachusetts, we have a number of positions that we have not been able to fill, but we have not yet laid off anyone. We have taken 14 furlough days this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, for all of our 46 employees. We do anticipate, going into the fiscal year for 2014, which starts on Oct. 1, that we will have to lay off staff.*

I’m assuming that would have a huge effect on cases and trials. What would happen?

It would have a huge effect. We would have to stop taking as many cases as we do take. In fact, we already have done that with the furloughs. Essentially we’re not available on Fridays. If a new arrest comes in on Friday, they have to appoint a private lawyer.

That’s where this whole thing really doesn’t make much sense because nationally, federal defenders represent almost 60 percent of the indigent defendants, which make up 90 percent of the defendants in federal court.

An indigent defendant has to be provided with a court-appointed lawyer; it’s a requirement of the Constitution. If we can’t take that case, then the court has to appoint a private lawyer. A study by the administrative office has shown that that’s more expensive. So one of the ironies of this whole thing is that these deep budget cuts that we’re facing will wind up not saving any money.

I know I’ve seen some of the testimony that was given to the Judiciary Subcommittee about increased costs of using private attorneys. How does this affect the cases? What happens?

First of all, it’s a huge disruption in the case. We’ve spent months reviewing discovery and information about the evidence in the case, establishing a relationship with our client, so if you have a change of lawyer, that all goes sort of back to square one.

The other problem is, even in the cases that we keep, if we don’t have as many investigators and paralegals to help us prepare the case, there are going to be delays. And the longer there are delays the longer people who are held in custody in jail, pending trial, are going to stay in jail at an approximate cost of $2,000 a month. And you’re likely to have cases in which defendants say that their speedy trial rights have been violated, and you’ll see motions to dismiss.

Do these cuts affect prosecutors as well?

No.

Why not?

Well, that’s a great question. You can ask Congress that question. The U.S. attorney’s office this year did not have any furlough days. And, in fact, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an increase of I think it was $79 million for U.S. attorneys offices with the express purpose of bringing more criminal cases in federal court. Of course, the more cases you have, the more lawyers you need on the defense side. And somehow, Congress has not joined the two and has not recognized that actually providing a defense is part of the cost of prosecuting a federal case.

So when you explain this to members of our delegation and say we’re going to end up paying more anyway because we’re going to have to get private attorneys appointed that will likely cost more, what do they say?

Well, the ones I’ve spoken with, or their staff — I haven’t spoken directly to members of the delegation yet — are supportive. But what we’ve essentially been told is, “We’re out of money. This is what you get for the year. We’ll see what happens in 2014.”

And we’re all sort of on the edge of our seats waiting to see what’s going to happen in 2014. Nationally, the defender services budget is predicting up to a $127 million shortfall. Now that is a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket when you look at the overall federal budget. But that $127 million coming out of a $1 billion defender services budget is over 10 percent. And these cuts are coming entirely out of the defender offices, which is why, instead of it being the 5 or 10 percent sequester cut, it’s a 23 percent cut. It’s huge.

In addition, one of the things that I forgot to mention that we’ve done as a result of these budget cuts is we are withdrawing from our participation in what are called reentry courts. And reentry courts are ones in which defendants who come out of prison after serving a sentence who are at high risk of reoffending are supervised very closely, not just by a probation officer, by a judge, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. We just simply can’t spare the staff at this point. Those are programs that protect public safety. They shouldn’t be seen as luxuries. But, at this point, we have to allocate our resources in a way that we can continue to represent the other clients that we have.

Correction: An earlier Web version of this story had Conrad saying that she may have to lay off up to 50 percent of staff. After this post was published — but before it aired on WBUR-FM — she corrected herself and lowered the estimate to 25 to 35 percent.

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