The Senators urge the Appropriations Committee to fund Defender Services at a level of $1.519 billion for FY2024

WASHINGTON – In case you missed it, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, joined U.S. Senators Peter Welch (D-VT), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) on Friday in leading 18 of their Senate colleagues, including every Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat, in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders emphasizing the importance of correcting a shortfall in the Federal Defenders’ proposed funding.

Noting that approximately 90 percent of federal criminal defendants require court-appointed counsel, the Senators urged that adequate funding be provided forDefender Services in both chambers’ Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) appropriations legislation. The current proposed funding levels are projected to result in hundreds of layoffs in Federal Defender offices across the country, slowing the administration of justice, limiting the right to counsel, and ultimately increasing costs. The letter follows recent reporting on the potential impacts of these cuts.  

“Federal Public and Community Defenders are fundamental to the function of federal courts across the country. To preserve the operation of our justice system, we urge you to pass funding for Defender Services that is at a minimum $108 million higher than the House mark and $136 million more than the Senate mark in the Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024,” wrote the Senators in the letter. “This funding level of $1.519 billion is necessary to simply maintain current operations by the Federal Defenders and would still result in the program foregoing necessary training and information technology (IT) improvements.”? 

On implications of not resolving this funding gap in FY24 appropriations, the Senators wrote: “Without addressing this gap in funding, Federal Defenders have estimated that funding at the current House or Senate marks would, conservatively, result in a 9-12% reduction in their current workforce. Federal Defenders are already approximately 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions below FY23 authorized staffing and approximately 400 FTEs below the level recommended by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts’ most recent work management study. An overwhelming majority of the Federal Defender budget is dedicated to personnel and space. Cuts to federal funding will directly impact employees, leading to a reduction in the number of paralegals, investigators, and attorneys.”? 

On the potential impact a lapse in funding could pose to individuals who cannot afford legal representation, the Senators wrote: "Nearly 9 in 10 individuals charged with a federal crime cannot afford legal representation and thus are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel. Preserving the public defender workforce is essential to our justice system. Because the Constitution requires the court to appoint counsel for individuals who cannot afford a lawyer, if there are fewer public defenders available, the court must refer more cases to private attorneys on the Criminal Justice Act panel. Although panel attorneys are dedicated to the public defense function, sending excess cases to the panel often incurs higher costs....Consequently, decreasing the Federal Defender budget may in fact increase costs on the federal judiciary, paradoxically costing the federal government more.”? 

The Senators concluded:?“Congress should follow through on its Constitutional responsibility to adequately fund federal public defense. We urge you to provide adequate funding for Defender Services in both chambers’ FSGG legislation or through supplemental appropriations legislation Congress may consider. Correcting the potential shortfall by providing at least $108 million more than the House bill and $136 million more than the Senate bill to Defender Services will, at a bare minimum, maintain the right to counsel in federal court and continue the bipartisan support this program has historically received.”? 

Durbin, Welch, Booker, Ossoff, and Hirono were joined in sending this letter by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tina Smith (D-MN), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Brian Schatz (D-HI).?? 

Read and download the letter here.

The letter continues the efforts by Durbin and the Senate Judiciary Committee to support the work of public defenders. In March, Durbin and Booker introduced two bills to underscore the value of public defenders and provide them with greater funding and resources:

  • The Sentencing Commission Improvements Act adds an ex officio member to the United States Sentencing Commission who is a federal public defender, providing important perspective the Commission needs to develop fairer sentencing guidelines.
  • The Quality Defense Act creates a grant program to help fund data collection, hiring, increased compensation, and loan assistance programs for public defenders.  This bill also directs the Justice Department to study and develop best practices and recommendations on appropriate public defender caseloads and levels of compensation.