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Funding Crisis Strikes Throughout Federal Courts, Judge Tells Senate Panel

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A federal judge today told a Senate panel that the number of personnel working in U.S. courts is at the lowest level since 1999, and that federal court clerks and probation and pretrial services staff could be furloughed for close to 70,000 hours this fiscal year.

“If sufficient funding is not provided to the courts, we cannot provide the people of the United States the type of justice system that has been a hallmark of our liberty throughout the nation’s history,” Judge Julia S. Gibbons, Chair of the Budget Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, said. She testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts at a hearing entitled: “Sequestering Justice: How the Budget Crisis is undermining our Courts (senate.gov).”

Judge Gibbons called special attention to the funding problems facing the Federal Defender program, which incurred a $52 million cut due to sequestration. About 90 percent of federal criminal defendants require court-appointed counsel. “Funding cuts are threatening that very right, a right that has been a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system for half a century,” Judge Gibbons testified (pdf).

Judge Gibbons shared the following with the Subcommittee:

  • Job cuts.  Clerks of court and probation and pretrial services offices are expected to lose as many as 1,000 staff in FY 2013, with furloughs accounting for an additional 8,600 workdays lost. Those offices have lost 2,100 positions since July 2011, Judge Gibbons said.  “The current staffing level of 20,100 personnel is the lowest since 1999, despite significant workload growth since that time,” Judge Gibbons said in her testimony.
  • Public safety risks. Judge Gibbons noted that funding for courthouse security has been cut 30 percent, “creating security vulnerabilities throughout the federal court system.” She also said that the courts’ probation and pretrial supervision offices have lost 7 percent of their staffing since July 2011, while supervising a record number of offenders and criminal defendants in the community.
  • Cuts in court-appointed counsel. The Federal Defender offices have downsized by about 6 percent, between October 2012 and June 2013, Judge Gibbons said. Further, it is anticipated that there will be a suspension of at least 15 days of payments to panel attorneys and that Federal Defender Organization staff will be furloughed for an average of 15 days over the last half of this fiscal year.
  • FY 2014 concerns. The Judiciary has great concern that a continuing resolution for FY 2014 at current sequestration levels would result in the loss of thousands of additional court and federal defender jobs, as well as deeper cuts in court services. “Such a scenario would be devastating for our entire system of justice,” Judge Gibbons said.

“Our workload does not go away because of budget shortfalls,” Judge Gibbons said. “Deep cuts mean that the Judiciary cannot perform adequately its Constitutional and statutory responsibilities.”