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Sequestration leads to furlough of federal public defenders, slowing of criminal cases

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Some federal criminal suspects could spend more time waiting behind bars in coming months when public defenders take a series of three-day weekends.

Federal courts in Pittsburgh, Erie and Johnstown are cutting the number of criminal cases they handle on Fridays because of sequestration cuts, a court official said Monday.

Robert Barth, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said attorneys with the Federal Public Defender's Office will take unpaid days off every other Friday because of spending cuts. Employees of the U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Marshals Office will take furloughs once the Justice Department determines how much money they have to cut, he said.

“They don't have a final number on how many they need yet, but when they do they're going to do it on the same Fridays as the public defenders,” he said.

Lisa Freeland, head of the Western Pennsylvania public defender's office, said sequestration effectively cut her staff's salaries by 20 percent — forcing them to take two unpaid days off every two weeks, including every other Friday.

“People are entitled to speedy trials,” Freeland said. “They shouldn't be sitting in prisons waiting for their attorneys to visit them because their attorneys are on furlough.”

The U.S. Attorney's Office referred calls to a Justice Department spokeswoman, who couldn't be reached. A spokesman for the marshals also couldn't be reached.

Triggered in March when the House and Senate failed to agree on targeted spending cuts, sequestration requires the government to cut spending by $85 billion this year.

Since the Sixth Amendment requires the government to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants, Freeland's office doesn't have the luxury of delaying its work, she said.

“There's no doubt that myself and many on my staff are working even though they're not being paid,” Freeland said.

Though the staff can make that sacrifice through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Congress and President Obama must find a long-term fix, she said.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said reducing days available for criminal hearings will do more than shift what kinds of cases are handled. Furloughs will slow criminal cases and, ultimately, civil cases, he said.

“It's just going to slow business down,” he said. “It can't help but do that.”

The judicial branch's budget absorbed a cut of about $350 million, including about $51 million for public defenders, according to David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Officer for the U.S. Courts.

“Most federal defender officers are going to have furloughs,” he said.

The national cut in the judiciary budget was about 5 percent, though offices might cut more or less depending on how the trims are distributed between court districts, Sellers said.

Barth said his office and the federal probation office avoided furloughs because they had vacant positions and two early retirements.

That happened in bankruptcy court, too, said clerk John Horner. “We may need to furlough later. We're not sure yet,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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