SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to a less global worry. The federal budget cuts known as sequestration are supposed to save money. In at least one area, though, the cuts may cost money. As we reported in April, federal public defenders are being furloughed or laid off, but people charged with a crime are still entitled to a lawyer. It's in the Constitution, so the courts are being forced to hire more expensive, private attorneys. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: These days, the Federal Public Defenders Office in Tucson has lots of space.
So you just walked me down one, two, three, four - what, five offices that are vacant.
VICKI BRAMBL: Yes.
ROBBINS: Supervising attorney Vicki Brambl flips on light after light of empty lawyers' offices. Since the sequester began, the Federal Public Defender's Office in Arizona has lost a quarter of its staff. But clients still need legal representation, so judges have to appoint private attorneys. In Arizona, using private attorneys costs the government about 25 percent more than using public defenders. That's about $6 million a year.
In other places around the country, the difference can be even greater. Let's look at a typical Arizona case, to see why. A driver tries crossing from Mexico into the U.S. through a port of entry. A customs officer gets suspicious and discovers 180 pounds of marijuana in the car. The driver is arrested, and the court appoints a lawyer. When the lawyer meets with the client, Vicki Brambl says there's a twist.
BRAMBL: The client reveals that he had been threatened by drug cartels; that he didn't want to bring the marijuana across but he was threatened, and the life of his wife and children were threatened, and so he agreed to cross the marijuana.
ROBBINS: She says that's an increasingly common situation as drug cartels extend their influence in Mexico. But the client has to prove his story in court. He needs witnesses to corroborate it.
BRAMBL: You have to investigate that, and try to talk to family members.
ROBBINS: And that takes legwork. The public defender has investigators and paralegals on staff and built into its budget. Private lawyers have to hire people like investigators, then charge the court piecemeal. Vicki Brambl says even things like travel cost more. Public defenders carpool in government vehicles to meet with clients at the federal prison in Florence, Ariz. Private lawyers get paid separately to drive back and forth.
BRAMBL: And for your listeners, that's a three-hour roundtrip every time they need to go out there.
ROBBINS: To cut costs, a committee of federal judges recently voted to delay payment to private lawyers for up to four weeks, and to reduce their hourly pay from $125 to $110. Bruce Moyer handles government affairs for the Federal Bar Association. He says the cut is still not enough to balance the ledger.
BRUCE MOYER: Federal defenders, even with the reduction in compensation paid to members of the bar in representing indigent defendants, is still a more cost-effective approach.
ROBBINS: Federal Judge Raner Collins in Tucson says the entire judicial system ends up costing more.
RANER COLLINS: You have more delays, in terms of cases getting to trial, getting processed through the system. You have people spending more time in detention. That costs more money.
ROBBINS: Collins is one of many judges, including Supreme Court justices, calling for restoring money to federal public defenders. But they have an even bigger concern. They worry that using more private attorneys will degrade the effectiveness of legal representation. Private attorneys who take federal criminal cases tend to be less experienced than public defenders.
Norman Reimer heads the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
NORMAN REIMER: The real problem is what it means for the quality of the defense that's available to people who can't afford a lawyer in perhaps the most trying moment of their lives. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Reimer does not hold the view that private defense attorneys are less effective than public defenders in federal criminal cases. He opposes budget cuts to both public defenders and private lawyers hired by the government.]
ROBBINS: That's a non-monetary cost, which people might debate. The irony is that in this case, the sequester isn't even saving money.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.