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Sequester squeezes judiciary in Massachusetts

The so-called sequester of federal funds has begun to have serious consequences for the federal court system in Massachusetts, with probation officials cutting back certain programs and the Public Defender Office having to force lawyers who represent low-income defendants to take furloughs.

The court system was already facing significant budget cuts for the 2013 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, and those cuts were exacerbated by Congress’s failure to prevent the sequester, — $85 billion in across-the-board cuts — from taking effect on March 1, court officials said.

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While the public focus on the automatic cuts has typically been on programs administered by the executive branch, the sequester also has had a serious impact on the court system. Nationwide, the judiciary’s budget has been cut nearly $350 million for the 2013 fiscal year, leading to the layoffs or involuntary furloughs of 2,000 employees, according to the court system.

“While we will survive this year’s cuts without significantly interrupting the justice system or affecting public safety, we have tightened our belt to the last notch,” said Patti B. Saris, chief judge of the US District Court in Massachusetts, in a statement. “Any additional cuts next year as a result of the sequester will be painful and interfere with the fair and efficient administration of justice.”

Among the departments most affected by the cuts is the federal Public Defender Office, which has about 46 employees in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, including 24 lawyers who represent low-income defendants.

Miriam Conrad, head of the Public Defender Office in Massachusetts, said staff members will be forced to take 16½ furlough days, or unpaid days, this year. As a result, court cases could be slowed down or postponed, which could obstruct the criminal justice system.

Conrad said the only alternative would be to hire outside lawyers to represent defendants to keep up with the pace of the justice system, which would ultimately cost more money.

“We are simply not going to be available on certain days,” she said, adding that some staff members have been looking at taking outside jobs to supplement their incomes. The furloughs come on top of cuts that have already been made in other areas of the department, such as travel and training programs. The department also has to fund its own experts and interpreters.

“We can’t start cutting things that affect our ability to provide representation for our clients,” Conrad said.

Nationally, Public Defender offices are facing an average of 21 furlough days per employee, with some being required to take more than 30 days. Conrad said the Boston office was able to absorb some of the cuts because it already had vacancies within the department.

But she questioned whether the US attorney’s office would see the same forced reductions in pay: By federal law, public defenders and federal prosecutors should be paid at the same rate, to create balance within the justice system.

“You can’t prosecute people without providing them a lawyer if they can’t afford their own lawyer, that’s just a constitutional requirement,” Conrad said. “When you start cutting the budget for appointed counsel, you’re really cutting into that constitutional guarantee.”

Saris said in a statement Wednesday the District Court will be able to avoid staff layoffs and involuntary furloughs in the court clerk’s office, the Bankruptcy Court, and the Probation Department, though those departments had to cut services and leave vacancies unfilled. They also have offered early-retirement incentives and have deferred purchases of new technology and maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Though no one will be laid off, services will be affected in other ways, Saris warned. With the Probation Department already only at 74 percent of its recommended staffing level, the department has had to look elsewhere to reduce spending. As a result, the department is sustaining a 20 percent cut in funding for drug and mental health services.

A spokesman for the US Department of Justice would only say Wednesday that the department also will be affected by the sequester, and will absorb a $1.6 billion cut, a nearly 9 percent reduction in the 2013 fiscal year budget. Already, notices of proposed furloughs have been sent to approximately 115,000 employees, nearly the department’s entire staff.

Among the various sections of the department, the US attorneys’ offices expect to lose $100 million from their current budgets, “affecting every district and reducing the number of cases they can prosecute.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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