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Public defenders' low income clients will suffer the most from funding crisis


Federal public defenders are warning they face a severe budget shortfall if Congress goes ahead with its plan to cut funding. The funding crisis means they may be forced to trim more than 10% of their current staff starting later this year, with aftershocks that could hurt the low-income people they represent in court. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Melody Brannon is the federal public defender in Kansas.

MELODY BRANNON: Our money goes to salaries to pay defenders and investigators and paralegals and social workers who provide representation for the most impoverished people in our society.

JOHNSON: Nine in 10 people accused of crimes in federal courts are represented by a public defender or court-appointed lawyer. So when the defenders struggle for resources, it directly hurts their clients, Brannon says.

BRANNON: This is going to be catastrophic.

JOHNSON: The decisions by House and Senate appropriators for the 2024 budget are landing at a particularly tough time. This is also the 60th anniversary of the Gideon case, which guaranteed low-income people the right to a free lawyer if they're accused of serious crimes. Federal defenders have raced to handle a huge surge in cases related to the January 6 Capitol riot and help in Indian country, where a recent Supreme Court ruling upended the justice system. If federal defenders are too strapped to handle these cases, the burden shifts to private defense attorneys, who are often paid more and have less expertise. But Brannon warns even those private lawyers won't be paid on time.

BRANNON: If you're a small practice, a solo lawyer, being - you know, not getting paid for 3 1/2 months can be devastating. That's your overhead. That's your operations.

JOHNSON: The last time things looked so bad for public defenders was 10 years ago, when Congress imposed nearly across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. A senior public defender in Ohio chose to lay himself off to protect his staff. Here's what Steve Nolder told me back then.


STEVE NOLDER: These are not luxury services that we're providing. These are constitutionally mandated services. And because they're mandated, someone has to do it.

JOHNSON: Federal defenders say they're going public now to try to convince Congress to change course. There is still time, they say, for lawmakers to act.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.