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.
“It costs them more to not properly fund us,” she said.
O'Connell and her employees in Tulsa and Muskogee took 18 furlough days from May to July.
She said she had to encourage one attorney to leave over the summer because of budget shortfalls and expects to have to lay off two more of her support staff in the coming months.
“That 20 percent decrease in staff cuts into the bone,” she said. “We already have a lean and efficient operation.”
O'Connell said it's important to remember that when there are cuts in staff, the caseload is shouldered by the employees who are already working far more cases than their co-workers across the country.
O'Connell said her five salaried lawyers, who make between $45,000 and $150,000 a year, work about 122 cases each.
“Any more cuts will seriously impair our ability to provide the best representation we can,” she said.
Other budget issues
The public defender office for the Western District has experienced similar, though not as severe, budget problems in the past months. But Public Defender Susan Otto said the future does not look promising.
Her office had to take 10 furlough days over the summer.
Otto said she has not had to lay off any employees yet, but after looking at 2014 budget projections, those difficult decisions are going to come within the next month.
“I will probably be reducing my force by the end of October,” she said.