Breaking News
More () »

'The impact could be devastating': Federal public defenders could lose staff, be unable to handle caseload due to proposed budget cuts

Federal defenders carried over $110 million from the pandemic due to a lower number of cases. Now a lower budget is being proposed for 2024, which may create issues.

SEATTLE — Washington State’s federal public defenders are calling on Sen. Patty Murray and other members of Congress to reverse course on proposed budget cuts. They said it will have devastating effects on those who need an attorney.

Federal public defenders take on some of the most serious and time-consuming criminal cases and could be facing unimaginable workloads if Congress continues with proposed budget cuts.

“Based on what I've seen in terms of where the numbers are, you're talking about cuts to an organization that is extremely high quality, but also very leanly run,” said Paul Holland, associate dean for experiential learning, Seattle University School of Law.

Due to COVID-19 and having fewer cases, federal defenders carried over more than $110 million. The leftover funds allowed Congress to give a lower amount of money for the fiscal year 2023. The same amount of money was set aside for the fiscal year 2024, and public defenders said this led to the shortfall.

The budget error could lead to at least a 10% staffing cut, which means pretrial programs like substance abuse and mental health services may be cut, plus cases could get delayed and those who can’t afford an attorney could spend more time in jail waiting for their day in court.

“Indigent defendants, who are poor and disproportionately people of color will be straining to receive the representation that the Constitution entitles them to,” Holland said.

Thousands of cases go through Washington federal courts every year, and more than 80% of defendants in the state and across the country can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

“Our office represents approximately three-quarters of the people who are charged in federal crimes in western Washington,” Fieman said.

Colin Fieman, federal public defender for western Washington recently sent a letter to Murray detailing the impacts.

“If these cuts go into effect, we're going to be at the point where not only can we not keep pace with the cases that the Department of Justice is sending our way,” Fieman said.

If federal public defenders can’t take on a case it’s sent to an appointed private attorney out of the Criminal Justice Act panel of attorneys. The government helps pay for their hourly work and Fieman said they require more resources that public defenders already have in-house.

“Even from a purely economic standpoint, what Congress is doing does not make sense,” Fieman said.

This comes as federal defenders even in Washington state are handed a surge of cases related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. These cases are often labor intensive with large amounts of discovery to comb through.

“There's no way that the federal defender office in Washington, D.C. could handle that so that burden is being shared nationwide, by federal defender offices, including my own," Fieman said. "We have had a number of cases where we are sending members of our staff and entire trial teams of attorneys, investigators and paralegals to Washington, D.C. to help deal with that crushing caseload."

In Fieman’s letter to Murray, he wrote that the ratio of federal prosecutors to federal public defenders is more than four to one in Washington.

“We can manage with that," Fieman said. "We're happy to do more with less, but there's only so much we can do."

READ: Letter to Sen. Patty Murray on federal public defender budget cuts

The proposed budget cut comes during the year of the 60th anniversary of the Gideon case where the Supreme Court ruled everyone is entitled to a lawyer even if they can’t afford one.

“It is sharply ironic that we will be having this conversation during this year when just a few months ago, we're celebrating that and now we are jeopardizing one of the finest embodiments of our commitment which is our federal public defenders,” Holland said.

Fieman said it’s not too late for lawmakers to act and hopes his letter will help change course.

“Our view is that no matter how you slice, it does not make sense," Fieman said. "We hope that Senator Murray and other people in Congress will revisit the cuts that are contemplated and provide the services that our community needs."

KING 5 reached out to Murray’s office for a statement and is waiting to hear back.

Watch: KING 5's Top Stories playlist

Before You Leave, Check This Out