Sequestration watch: Oregon’s justice system takes a hit

September 11, 2013

Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore. (Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images.)

As the 2013 fiscal year winds down, Congress has to revisit the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that have squeezed already tight state budgets. By now you’ve probably read about how those cuts have affected everything from Head Start programs to Defense contractors, but it can take a toll on public safety in states, too.

The next fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, and federal lawmakers are currently considering what to do about that year’s budget. A current proposal from the House Republican leadership “calls for the government to be funded at current levels through Dec. 15, continuing the sharp budget cuts known as the sequester,” our own Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery report. Roughly 30 percent of state revenue comes from the federal government, according to Federal Funds Information for States, so across-the-board cuts can have widespread impact.

Enter Oregon’s justice system, per The Oregonian’s Bryan Denson:

“These cuts are an assault on the whole system,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, who coordinates those working in the trenches of Oregon’s federal court system.

 

Aiken offered an example: 1,100 men and women — all of them former federal prisoners — now live in Oregon under the supervision of federal courts. As a group, she said, their criminal histories are among the most serious of any judicial district in the nation.

 

 

“The more we pull back our supervision,” she said, “they just end up in the group of people who are going to go out and revictimize.”

When the fiscal year ends, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon will be down seven support staff and up one attorney from the beginning of the fiscal year, bringing the office’s grand total to 105. The federal public defender’s office will lose three of 27 lawyers and six support staff and the U.S. Marshals Service will lose eight of 40 sworn marshals and one support staff, according to The Oregonian.

In a July report, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, explained that cuts affecting federal defenders in 81 district offices nationwide would result, “paradoxically, [in] greater expense to the taxpayer as indigent defendants are increasingly assigned private counsel.”

On average, the cost to defend a federal criminal case in one of six districts—in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Washington—was 71.4 percent of what it would cost to hire private lawyers, the report found.

And jailing people is incredibly expensive especially with many jails already overcrowded. Federal public defenders are good at what they do, the report argues. If they could shave one month off of each average client’s incarceration, for example, it would translate to about $260 million in savings a year, according to the Brennan Center.

In Oregon, the public defender’s office took an $850,000 budget cut, according to The Oregonian, forcing deep cuts on travel and other expenses, as well as furloughs averaging eight days per employee.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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