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Pa. taxpayers end up paying more as public defenders laid off

| Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 11:16 p.m.

In Western Pennsylvania, budget sequestration measures are pushing the federal court system to rely on $125-an-hour private attorneys instead of public defenders who typically cost taxpayers $75 or less for hourly work on criminal cases.

That 67 percent increase in providing legal services to indigent criminal defendants is just one way that budget “cuts” will end up costing taxpayers more, while undermining the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of fair and speedy trials, legal experts contend.

“It's really bad now,” said U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, the incoming chief judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “It's going to get worse.”

Conti is among chief judges from 87 of the country's 94 districts who wrote to Vice President Joe Biden last week to argue that a “second year under sequestration will have a devastating, and long lasting, impact on the administration of justice in this country.” Biden, who acts as Senate president, has not responded.

The worst hit so far was a $52 million cut to the Defender Services account, which forced the Public Defender's Office to lay off or furlough attorneys and delayed payments to court-appointed private attorneys.

Public defenders and court-appointed attorneys represent about 90 percent of federal criminal defendants, court statistics show.

Lisa Freeland, the public defender for the district, said the 10 percent cut caused a deficit of about $684,000 in her budget.

Salaries, benefits and rents make up about 90 percent of what the office spends. The rest goes to forensic scientists, psychologists and other experts needed to adequately defend people.

“I don't have a lot of discretionary spending like some federal programs,” Freeland said.

Before the cuts, her office trimmed its spending by negotiating 10 to 25 percent fee reductions from expert witnesses. A university professor provides her office computer forensic services at no cost.

Because one of her investigators speaks Spanish, she saved money on interpreter fees for an increasing number of immigration cases, Freeland said.

Despite those savings, the staff took at least a 10 percent pay cut when sequestration hit. One person voluntarily left; Freeland laid off another.

When staffers travel for training, or to handle cases in other cities, they stay with family and friends and pay for their car costs and food, she said.

Her office faces a cut of up 23 percent in the fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1 unless Congress passes a judiciary budget.

“I would have to fire a third to a half of my staff,” Freeland said.

She would probably close the office in Erie and handle its cases out of Pittsburgh. “It's certainly not something I want to do, but ... I have to put everything on the table.”

House and Senate appropriations committees approved bills to increase judiciary funding by 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively, but neither bill has gone to a floor vote.

In addition to federal defender cuts, sequestration led to layoffs and furloughs among court staff and probation officers.

Reduced judicial staffs will slow cases and, because criminal cases take priority, business disputes and other civil litigation will bear the brunt of delays, several legal experts predicted.

Because probation officers supervise people released on bond before trial, and people on probation, reducing their numbers could mean more people sitting in jails awaiting trials.

Tina Miller, chairwoman-elect of the Allegheny County Bar Association's federal section, said that's another example of how the budget cuts end up costing money.

“It's very expensive to house people pre-trial,” said Miller, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Releasing someone under supervision costs about $10 per day, versus the $70 to $80 daily cost of incarceration, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Julia Gibbons told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a July hearing.

The situation is penny-wise and pound-foolish, she said.

“You're not saving any money by cutting the public defender budget,” she said. And delaying payments to court-appointed attorneys is “not really solving the problem. It's just pushing it off to another year.”

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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