Federal Budget Cuts Compromising Court System, Judges Say

Chief U.S. Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan and 86 other top federal court judges told Congress in a letter that automatic spending cuts are compromising the justice system and putting public safety at risk.

Federal courts’ staffing has fallen to the lowest since 1999 after funding allocations were cut 10 percent below fiscal 2012 levels under budget sequestration, Preska, chief judge of the Southern District of New York, said in the letter. The reductions have come amid an increased workload, she wrote.

“Funding reductions have forced us to slash our operations to the bone and we believe that our constitutional duties, public safety and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by any further cuts,” Preska said in the letter, co-written with Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the Eastern District of Michigan and signed by 85 other chief judges.

U.S. spending cuts of $80.1 billion began March 1 after lawmakers mandated $1.2 trillion in across-the-board reductions, to begin in 2013 and be spread over nine years, as part of a 2011 deal to increase the U.S. debt limit.

Staffing at federal probation and pretrial services offices, which employ about 6,000 law enforcement officers, has fallen by 7 percent since 2011, according to the judges’ letter to Congress and Vice President Joseph Biden.

Funds for drug, mental-health and sex-offender treatment were trimmed by 20 percent, the judges said. Federal defender services, which provide legal counsel for criminal defendants unable to pay for a lawyer, were most affected, absorbing a budget reduction of $50 million, Preska said.

Further reductions through furloughs or layoffs will require shifting the defenders’ work to private lawyers who are paid hourly wages under the Criminal Justice Act, increasing costs, Preska said.

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