The Edmond Sun

February 27, 2013

Courts will feel sequestration’s impact

James Coburn
The Edmond Sun

OKLA. CITY — Choices that Congress make regarding sequestration will impact local choices on how to supervise criminal offenders and defendants, said Steve Skinner, chief U.S. probation officer.

Many criminal trials could be terminated in the U.S. if Congress does not act to end sequestration because many practitioners involved in federal trials would not be paid, according to the Federal Bar Association.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate must reach an agreement to avoid across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that will otherwise take effect Friday.

The federal court community consists of Federal District Court, Federal Bankruptcy Court, U.S Probation, the federal defender’s office, judges and staff members, said Grant Price, court clerk for the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Oklahoma City. Price said his office already has reduced its staff in anticipation of sequestration.

“I think everybody is reluctant to under react and over react,” federal defender Susan Otto told The Edmond Sun. “One of the things I can’t do is I can’t spend money I don’t have. I can’t engage in deficit.”

The federal judiciary is not exempt from sequestration, Otto said. Sequestration would impact funds for the public defense organizations, community defense organizations and the criminal justice act panel attorneys.

Sequestration would mandate $85 billion of federal cuts over the next seven months, said Congressman James Lankford, R-Edmond. Sequestration ultimately would reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion in a 10-year period.

“The dire warning they continue to put out that everything shuts down if they don’t get all the funding they have is not accurate based on the amount of cuts that they’re actually experiencing in the reduction of spending,” Lankford said.

Civil jury trials could be suspended by federal judges resulting from jury fee account reductions if across-the-board spending occurs, according to FBA. Federal courts would need to cut 36 percent of its workforce, a figure that would include 7,800 court workers and more than 450 court security officers, according to the FBA.

“If I don’t have sufficient resources to meet payroll, there will be furloughs,” Otto said. “… I don’t have excess people to cut.”

Delays in court proceedings would occur with procedures in court clerk’s offices being reduced, according to FBA.

“The federal courts would be unable to properly supervise thousands of persons under pretrial release and convicted felons released from federal prisons, thus compromising public safety,” according to the report.

Meanwhile the nation is $16 trillion in debt. Federal spending has increased 40 percent in the last five years

“This is a 2.5 percent cut on a 40 percent increase,” Lankford said. So if you can look back and say ‘Five years ago, did all those things occur? Did we have security in airports? Did we have functioning courts?’” Lankford said. “Yes, we did.”

Sequestration would return federal government to the same funding status of five years ago, Lankford said.

There are more case-load supervision cases today than in 2006, Skinner said. Simple inflation makes it cost more to provide treatment services for sex offenders and other criminals in the community, Skinner said.

“You’ll have to make a lot of choices of which offenders you give most attention to,” Skinner said. “You’re going to definitely see the high risk offender. That’s where you’re going to focus and try to see the other ones you can to the extent of what’s left.”

Individual court units can do everything they can to minimize the impact on individual cases and clients depending on how profound the final reduction is, Otto said.

“But if court is not open, and for example, a chief judge in this district would say, ‘I’m going to close the court house every third Friday’ for whatever might happen — any day the court’s not in business is a day when a person being held in custody, who should appear in front of a magistrate — that would have to be deferred.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House on Friday in a last-minute attempt to reach an agreement.

Sequestration law is written so that Congress determines how much to reduce federal spending, Lankford said. The Obama administration oversees the cuts.

Lankford said the House is working on legislation to ensure a reasonable maximum flexibility funds federal accounts so the Obama administration can continue to decide how to cut spending. For example, the administration makes cuts to the military assuming there will be no reductions in military pay.

“We’re trying to allow them to make decisions on some items, not all, so they can prioritize the most important places to do their spending,” Lankford said.

In May the House passed a bill to replace the sequester with long-term reforms. So far the Senate has never answered the bill, Lankford said. The Senate has insisted that the House passes more favorable legislation. Compromise is impossible if the Senate never passes a bill, Lankford said.

“We’re stuck. There’s nothing we can do. They feel like they have good political points by blaming it on us, but we have done all we can do in the House by passing a replacement for sequester twice, to reduce spending in a more logical, surgical way.”

The sequestration makes a federal budget that wasn’t the best a lot worse for federal courts, Skinner said.

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