Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Sounds Alarm Over Inadequate Funding and Independence of the Federal Indigent Defense System
Washington, DC (June 25, 2013) – Following deep funding cuts that began before the federal sequester and were increased after the sequester took effect, the nation’s federal indigent defense system is in crisis. These cuts are having a devastating effect on the nation’s federal defenders, and delayed payments are inflicting extraordinary hardship on the small firm and solo practitioners who provide indigent defense services through a panel appointment system. And now, another serious blow has been delivered to federal indigent defense.
Last week, America’s federal indigent defense system, known as the Office of Defender Services (ODS), was demoted. The very first principle set forth in the American Bar Association’s “Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System” is that “The public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.” As of this date, that is still not the case as respects ODS. Indeed, things are moving in the other direction. Until last week, ODS was its own directorate within the judicial branch of the U.S. government. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has a long and proud history of supporting the independence of the judiciary, as well as appropriate compensation for our nation’s judges and resources for our nation’s court system. But it cannot remain silent. ODS not only continues to lack institutional independence, which is critical to our adversarial system and the proper administration of justice, but has now been demoted to subordinate entity status within the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) and will no longer be its own department.
Austerity measures, including sequestration, have placed a disparate burden on America’s federal defender system, with no commensurate reduction in the resources available to the prosecutorial function. Federal public defenders have been forced to lay off and furlough attorneys, close offices and eliminate training; without significant additional funding, federal defenders will be dangerously overburdened and attorneys who accept court appointed cases will likely face lengthy delays in payments and significant economic hardship. What is tragically at stake here, in the 50th anniversary year of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, is the very promise of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in America. Adequate resources and real independence for the nation’s federal defender system are not optional luxuries. They are critical ingredients to the fair criminal justice system guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The American Bar Association recently reaffirmed its support for “an independent federally funded Center for Indigent Defense Services for the purpose of assisting state, local, tribal and territorial governments in carrying out their Constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel for the defense of the indigent accused.” NACDL President Steven D. Benjamin, a long time crusader for indigent defense reform, said “NACDL supports the creation of such an entity with the additional responsibility of overseeing the federal indigent defense system. Recent events have demonstrated that the federal indigent defense system must be vested with the same independence as the judicial and prosecutorial functions.”
Contact: Ivan J. Dominguez, Director of Public Affairs & Communications, (202) 465-7662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.