Sequestration’s Biggest Victim: The Public Defender System
It’s roughly 164 miles from Lubbock, Texas, to Abilene; not the furthest drive you can do in the Lone Star State but still a bit of a haul. On a good day, you can make the trip in about three hours, which is what Helen Liggett discovered in April when she had to visit a client in the Taylor County Jail.
Liggett is an assistant federal public defender for the Northern District of Texas, based in Lubbock. Her client Leroy Gream had been caught on camera loading an ATM onto a cart and attempting to steal it from Hendrick Memorial Hospital in Abilene on Christmas Day of last year. Gream, 55, pleaded guilty to bank theft, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. But like most people who try to steal an ATM, he didn’t have the money to pay for his defense. Liggett was assigned to his case.
On April 8, she drove to Abilene to attend Gream’s arraignment at the federal courthouse, which was scheduled for the next day. On May 8, she went back for his interview with the United States probation office in preparation for his pre-sentencing report.
In each instance, Liggett chose to pay for the trip — $185 for gas and a hotel room — out of her own pocket. It was either that or not visit her client at all. The budget cuts brought on by sequestration wiped out any travel budget her office had.
In an age of across-the-board budget reductions, Liggett forewent all travel reimbursements for March, April and May. She began buying her own pens and copy paper. She’s also been furloughed one day a week and has occasionally taken on the furlough days of her lesser-paid secretary and paralegal. There used to be eight people in her office, but in late June, her boss said that they would have to make due with three. The office investigator subsequently announced he would retire.
“I still haven’t figured out how a lawyer can represent a criminal defendant without investigating the case,” Liggett said.
The public defender system hasn’t just been stripped bare by sequestration, its bones have been chiseled away as well. There has been a 9 percent reduction in the roughly $1 billion budget for federal public defender’s offices, while federal defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices. Careers have been ended and cases have been delayed. All of it has occurred in the name of deficit reduction — and yet, for all the belt-tightening being demanded of the nation’s public defenders, money is not actually being saved.
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