U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during the 2013 America Bar Association (ABA) annual meeting on August 12, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Attorney Holder announced plans for major changes in the sentencing of certain drug-related crimes in an effort to reduce overcrowding in the nations prisons. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - The federal judiciary for the first time is cutting the fees of court appointed defense lawyers, including those representing death penalty defendants, to deal with the "dire consequences'' of required government budget reductions known as sequestration.
The reductions, outlined in a notice to U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake, chairwoman of the Federal Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, are part of an unprecedented criminal justice cost-cutting effort that also will scale back operations of federal probation services at a time when authorities are planning to rely more heavily on programs like probation to help reduce the rising federal prison population.
The cuts in attorneys' fees will be implemented next month with payments dropping from $125 per hour to $110 in non-death penalty cases and from $179 per hour to $164 in cases where capital punishment is being sought.
The reductions are aimed at saving $50 million during the next 13 months to avoid further cuts into the full-time staff of the federal defenders service. The defender program consists of both full-time public defenders, who have been targeted for furloughs and layoffs, and private court-appointed lawyers who assist in the representation of the indigent.
In addition to the fee cuts, millions of dollars in fees to the outside court-appointed counsels, scheduled for payment in fiscal year 2014 (beginning in October), would be deferred into fiscal year 2015.
In the letter to Blake made public Monday, William Traxler Jr., chairman of the Judicial Conference's Executive Committee, warned that the fee cuts "may impact the delivery of justice, but are necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program.''
"Measures of this kind, however, are not sustainable in the long term and certainly would not be required if the judiciary were receiving an appropriate level of funding in this account,'' Traxler said.
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to the forced cuts, noting that the country's indigent defense systems "continue to exist in a state of crisis.''
"To address this crisis, Congress must not only end the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide, they must expand existing indigent defense programs,'' Holder told the American Bar Association.
Notice of the fee reductions come less than a week after the chief judges of 87 federal districts warned congressional leaders and Vice President Biden that funding reductions to the judiciary have "put public safety at risk.''
Although the number of convicted offenders supervised by probation officers is expected to increase from a record 187,311 in 2012 to 191,000 by 2014, the number of probation and pre-trial services officers employed by the judiciary to supervise those offenders has been reduced by 7% since 2011 to a staff of about 6,000.
Holder, in the same ABA speech, said the federal government should rely more on such supervision programs and less on incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, who make up about half of the growing federal prison system which now holds 219,000 inmates.
"Cuts to officer staffing levels have forced cutbacks in these activities to crisis levels,'' the judges said in the letter last week. "Particularly troublesome is the 20% cut that had to be made to the ... allotments that fund drug, mental health and sex offender treatment and testing services for offenders and electronic GPS monitoring.''
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, chief judge of New York's Southern District and one of the two main authors of the judges' letter, said the appeal to Congress is the first she can remember in more than two decades on the bench.
In her own district, forced budget reductions have hit the probation and treatment programs especially hard, Preska said in an interview, requiring a 43% cut in substance abuse treatment for offenders, a 7% drop in mental health treatment and a 24% cut in special location monitoring programs, including GPS monitoring of those on supervised release.
She said the reduction in attorneys' fees is "very dangerous'' in regions of the country like New York, where legal fees are especially high.
"Fees of $125 per hour is virtually charity work in New York,'' she said. "We want to make sure we can attract competent lawyers to join the panel'' of court appointed attorneys.
"We are very concerned,'' she said.
Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY