Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that people accused of serious crimes have a right to counsel at state expense if they cannot afford to hire one of their own. The following year Congress passed the Criminal Justice Act, which established a comprehensive system through which criminal defense attorneys are appointed and compensated to represent indigent clients in federal court. Today, that system, comprised of full-time attorneys and a volunteer panel of attorneys willing to take cases for a set hourly rate, is run and funded through the Defender Services Office (DSO) of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
But without adequate funding, the DSO cannot deliver the right to counsel enshrined in Gideon. And this year, the federal public defender program finds itself facing that very problem. This summer, sizeable cuts to DSO funding for FY2024 were approved within the House and Senate appropriations committees. The shortfall in the House of $113M would mean the DSO would need to reduce its workforce by 10%, and the $153M shortfall in the Senate would mean a 12% reduction of about 500 defender staff. These cuts also eliminate critical attorney training as well as necessary cybersecurity upgrades to the DSO digital network.
If implemented, these proposed cuts would be devastating to the estimated 90% of federal defendants too poor to hire a lawyer. Presumed innocent, these men and women would be held behind bars longer while awaiting their trials, worsening the already significant impact that incarceration has on their families and their jobs and contributing to backlogs already in the judicial system.