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Budget cuts clog justice system

ATLANTA — Prosecutors are forced to ignore misdemeanor violations to pursue more serious crimes. Judges are delaying trials to cope with layoffs and strained staffing levels. And in some cases, those charged with violent crimes, even murder, are set free because caseloads are too heavy to ensure they receive a speedy trial.

Deep budget cuts to courts, public defenders, district attorney’s and attorney general offices are testing the criminal justice system across the country. In the most extreme cases, public defenders are questioning whether their clients are getting a fair shake.

Exact figures on the extent of the cuts are hard to come by, but an American Bar Association report in August found that most states cut court funding 10 percent to 15 percent within the past three years. At least 26 states delayed filling open judgeships, while courts in 14 states were forced to lay off staff, said the report.

The National District Attorneys Association estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice funding and scores of positions have been cut amid the economic downturn, hampering the ability of authorities to investigate and prosecute cases.

“It’s extremely frustrating. Frankly, the people that do these jobs have a lot of passion. They don’t do these jobs for the money. They are in America’s courtrooms every day to protect victims and do justice,” said Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association. “And they’re rewarded with terminations, furloughs and cuts in pay.”

The cuts come as civil and criminal caseloads for many state and county systems have swelled.
Public defenders, whose offices also are absorbing cuts, are taking more clients.

“If you don’t have enough lawyers to handle the cases, it leaves them open to speedy-trial challenges and ineffective assistance of counsel,” said Ed Burnette, a vice president of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

New York is among the states that has been hit hardest by budget cuts.

State lawmakers slashed $170 million from the Office of Court Administration’s $2.7 billion budget, forcing layoffs and a hiring freeze. Judges were ordered to halt proceedings at 4:30 p.m. sharp to control overtime pay, and courts also were told to call fewer potential jurors, who cost $40 a day.

Defendants in New York are generally supposed to see a judge within 24 hours of their arrest. But staff cuts left them waiting an average of about 50 hours over the summer, said Julie Fry, vice president of the Brooklyn division of the union representing Legal Aid lawyers.

“People were waiting for two, three and four days at a time. Some are waiting for administrative code violations, like riding bicycles on the sidewalk or sleeping on a subway train,” she said.

“This really disrupts people’s lives. Some of these people are on the cusp of being employed, and they can’t afford missing a few days of work.”