Heather Williams, head of the Federal Defender Office in Sacramento, says proposed budget cuts are "unacceptable."

Federal public defender in Sacramento decries budget cuts

Published: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013 - 11:53 am

Cuts to the program that provides lawyers to poor federal defendants could end up costing taxpayers more money than they save, according to Heather Williams, who recently took over as federal defender in Sacramento.

"Any claim of savings is a fiction," said Williams, federal defender for the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California since May 6.

One of her first orders of business in her new job is to deal with cuts ordered by Congress as part of the sequester, which slashed federal spending across the board.

The automatic spending cuts took 10 percent of her budget this year and the federal defenders across the country have been warned that sequester cuts in fiscal year 2014, beginning Oct. 1, will likely be 14 percent.

Accommodating that, Williams said, "would require 98 furlough days for each employee, about two days a week or four a pay period. Unacceptable."

The reality, she said, will be drastic layoffs of the lawyers and support personnel on her staff, expensive case delays and appeals, and pricier court-appointed private attorneys stepping in to fill the void, all on the government's tab.

Her fear is that there will be so much less time to spend on each case due to increased loads per attorney, so much more time before cases can be resolved, and so little money for investigations and retention of experts, that appeals based on ineffective assistance of counsel and violation of the Speedy Trial Act will multiply.

The federal Defender Services Program is perhaps the most tangible result of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. The decision established the right of criminal defendants to have a lawyer, regardless of how little their resources or low their station.

In a letter last month to Morrison C. England Jr., chief judge of the U.S. Eastern District of California, Williams said a comparison shows "our office handles representations at an average 11 percent less costly rate than (private) lawyers – the whole reason defender offices were created was to save taxpayer money." This translates, she wrote, to "an increased average annual taxpayer cost of $223,200 to $279,000."

Private practitioners who accept appointments to represent indigent defendants – because the defender's office has a conflict, its caseload is maxed out or a case is so complex that it demands extraordinary resources – are paid $125 an hour, a comparatively low rate, but more than the salaries of assistant federal defenders.

These so-called "panel attorneys" and assistant federal defenders are both paid out of the Defender Services Program budget, and Williams' office administers the appointment and pay of panel members. Her own staff "traditionally handles 60 percent to 70 percent of the indigent defendants in our district," Williams wrote in her letter to England.

"This office is my client, and it is facing a death sentence," Williams said in a recent interview. "Of all the people on the planet, why would you do this to the ones who have a constitutional mandate?"

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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