04/10/2013 03:16 pm ET

Sequestration Impact On Federal Public Defenders Could Force Courts To Use More Expensive Lawyers

WASHINGTON -- Sequestration is having such a harsh effect on federal public defenders that it’s forcing them to examine whether they have the resources to represent their clients, a choice that could ultimately make legal representation much more expensive for taxpayers.

“It’s terrible, it really has a terrible effect both personally on people’s lives and professionally, their ability to do the work,” A.J. Kramer, the top federal public defender in D.C., told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “We currently have [cases] where we’re trying to figure out whether we can continue to represent the person or not, because of the time and expense involved.”

With 96 percent of his budget taken up by salaries and rent, Kramer doesn’t have much flexibility in his budget. His attorneys are being furloughed for 27 days this year, a number above the 22-day average for federal public defenders nationwide. Now, Kramer said his office is weighing whether it will have the resources to give adequate representation to clients with complex cases. If they decide they can't represent a client, the court might have to appoint a private lawyer.

“We would have to withdraw because we couldn’t provide effective representation, and if the court allowed that, they would have to appoint a [Criminal Justice Act] lawyer, which would end up costing more,” Kramer said. “It becomes sort of a circle, we run out of money, we don’t have the money to do the cases, so they appoint other lawyers who are more expensive.”

Under the Criminal Justice Act, so-called private "panel attorneys" can be appointed to represent indigent clients -- those who cannot afford a lawyer -- if a federal public defender isn't available or has a conflict in the case.

Kramer said he worries about losing good lawyers because of the furloughs. In his 22 years in the D.C. federal public defender’s office, Kramer said, “It’s by far the worst it’s ever been.”

“We do only one thing and one thing only, which we have no control over: represent people accused of federal crimes who can’t afford to hire a lawyer,” Kramer continued. “That really is all personnel. Sure, we have computers for staff and travel for cases, but you have to have a person go interview the client, you have to have a person go to court, you have to have a person do the investigation.

"We don’t build anything or design anything that you might be able to cut back on," he said. "All we do is represent people.”


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