Federal budget cuts mean layoffs, furloughs for Oklahoma public defenders

10 percent cuts in the 2014 budget mean Oklahoma public defender offices can expect increased budgeting complications.
BY JONATHAN SUTTON jsutton@opubco.com Modified: September 21, 2013 at 2:25 am •  Published: September 22, 2013
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Budget cuts have forced federal public defenders to send more cases to private attorneys, boosting government costs.

Oklahoma's two federal public defender offices handle cases in the state's federal district courts.

The offices have had to take furlough days and are expected to have to lay off some employees within the next month. And with at least 10 percent cuts to their 2014 budgets expected, they will continue working under strained circumstances for the foreseeable future.

The $85 billion federal cuts known as the sequester were made in all phases of the government, and the 81 public defender offices across the country have taken a hit.

Those offices represent an estimated 60 percent of all criminal defendants in the federal court system, and 90 percent of those charged in federal court qualify for a public defender, said Julia O'Connell, the public defender for the Northern and Eastern districts of Oklahoma.

O'Connell's office has already stopped taking immigration cases because of the financial burden they carry.

To properly work an immigration case, O'Connell has to pay for an interpreter from her budget, which she cannot afford.

The irony, she said, is that when her office cannot take these cases, a private attorney charging $125 per hour will take the case, and the federal government still picks up the bill.

That bill for private attorneys totaled $447 million in 2012 compared to $61 million in 2007.

That number will undoubtedly go up with more cases being sent to private attorneys, O'Connell said.

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