Bonamici, Armstrong Lead Bipartisan Call to Increase Federal Defender Funding
WASHINGTON, DC [09/27/23] –Today Representatives Suzanne Bonamici [D-OR] and Kelly Armstrong [R-ND] led several of their colleagues in urging House and Senate Appropriations Committees to update the funding levels for Federal Defenders in Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24).
Both the Senate and House Financial Services and General Government bills for FY24 rely on the Fiscal Year 2023 enacted funding level for Defender Services, which ignores that Defender Services had a carryforward of $110 million from the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
The bipartisan letter calls for providing at least $108 million higher than the House mark and $136 million more than the Senate mark to Defender Services. Without this update to the funding level, the Federal Defenders would likely have to cut their workforce by an estimated 9 – 12 percent. The loss of public defenders would ultimately have serious and expensive consequences on the administration of justice…
The Federal Defenders, funded through Defender Services, are essential to the function of the federal court system. This critical program guarantees that indigent defendants are afforded their full Constitutional right to an attorney in federal criminal prosecutions. Importantly, if a federal defender is not available, attorneys are assigned from a Criminal Justice Act panel, which often results in higher cost.
The letter is supported by: National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Due Process Institute, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Drug Policy Alliance, Americans for Prosperity, Prison Fellowship, Arnold Ventures LLC, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks, Project On Government Oversight, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and Justice Action Network…
The full text of the letter can be found below…
Dear Chair Murray, Vice Chair Collins, Chairwoman Granger, and Ranking Member DeLauro,
Federal defenders are fundamental to the function of federal courts across the country. To preserve the operation of our justice system, we urge you to, at a minimum, pass funding for Defender Services that is $108 million higher than the House mark and $136 million more than the Senate mark. Although achieving a funding level of $1.519 billion is critical, this would only maintain current operations after cuts to training and needed information technology (IT) improvements. Instead, Congress should be passing full funding for Defender Services in line with the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2024.
Notably, both the Senate and House Financial Services and General Government bills, as currently proposed, rely on the Fiscal Year 2023 enacted funding level for Defender Services. This enacted level, however, does not take into account that Defender Services had a significant carryforward of $110 million from Fiscal Year 2022. Any funding legislation Congress passes for Fiscal Year 2024 should adequately compensate for this carryforward and address inflationary cost pressures. Without addressing this gap in funding, Federal Defenders in correspondence with our offices have estimated that this could, conservatively, result in a nine to 12 percent reduction in their current workforce.
Nearly ninety percent of everyone charged with a federal crime cannot afford a lawyer and thus is constitutionally entitled to representation by a federal defender. Without enough federal defenders to fulfill this critical Sixth Amendment function, federal courts may come to a standstill. Preserving their workforce as much as possible is essential to our justice system. And as you are aware, an overwhelming majority of federal defender budgets are dedicated to personnel and space, with limited funds afforded for other case basics. Cuts to federal funding will have devastating effects, primarily, on vital personnel – paralegals, investigators, and attorneys.
Because the Constitution requires the court to appoint counsel for individuals who cannot afford counsel, if there are fewer public defenders available the court must employ private attorneys. Although private Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys are dedicated to the public defense function and play a crucial role in guaranteeing conflict-free representation and preserving an experienced federal criminal defense bar, sending excess cases to the panel often incurs higher costs. Nearly 90 percent of federal criminal cases are handled by either a federal defender or a panel attorney hired under the Criminal Justice Act. The budgets and rates of panel attorneys must be approved before the case, and an unexpected increase in cases assigned to the panel—the inevitable consequence of underfunding the federal public defense system—may in fact increase costs on the federal judiciary. Panel attorneys are overwhelmingly small businessowners—solo practitioners and small-firm attorneys—who cannot afford the potential deferment in Criminal Justice Act payments that Defender Services may be forced to implement under the current Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations marks. They may also hold contracts with state and local governments to provide public defense services, which may be more demanding and generate more revenue should we not properly fund Criminal Justice Act defense services nationally. Instead, Congress should follow through on its Constitutional responsibility to adequately fund federal public defense.
Nationally, we have seen a crisis at the state and local level of underfunded public defense. Accordingly, we urge you to provide adequate funding for Defender Services in both chambers’ Financial Services and General Government legislation or through supplemental appropriations legislation Congress may consider. Correcting the potential shortfall by providing at least $108 million higher than the House mark and $136 million more than the Senate mark to Defender Services will, at a bare minimum, maintain the right to counsel in federal court and continue the bipartisan support this program has historically received.
We thank you for your past support of strong funding for the Federal Defender Services program, and look forward to any opportunities to work together to strengthen our federal defenders’ resources. We appreciate your attention to this matter.