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Chief Public Defender on Sequester: Representation is going to suffer

For those who can't afford a lawyer, public defenders are their last line of defense, but the sequester could be putting that right in jeopardy.
PEORIA - For those who can't afford a lawyer, public defenders are their last line of defense, but the sequester could be putting that right in jeopardy.

Jonathan Hawley is the Chief Public Defender for the Central Illinois district and said his budget was cut by 14 percent budget last year.

"I eliminated two lawyers and our computer systems administrator permanently and then furloughed the rest of the staff for what turned out to be four days," Hawley said.

His staff could be forced to take even more unpaid days off and Hawley said his budget still can’t even allow him to hire experts for his cases.

"If I don't have the money I have to then decline cases and ask the court to appoint panel attorneys. Historically on average both nationwide and in this district in particular it actually costs more money for a panel attorney to represent a client than our office," he said.

The money used to pay the panel attorneys comes out of the same federal courts budget Hawley draws from to pay his employees.

"That’s the irony, we're just shifting money around it's not really saving the taxpayers money," Hawley said.

He claims it actually costs taxpayers $1,300 more every time his lawyers have to withdraw from a case because they can't afford to pay an expert. He is bracing for more cuts on the horizon.

"If congress does not provide some supplemental funding for the federal defender program and sequester remains in effect, we will be cut another 23 percent off of last year’s level. That would mean the loss of an additional three to five positions."

That means even more work for an office that's already running on a skeleton crew with not even enough funding for new law books.

"The quality of representation is going to suffer and when quality of representation suffers that means you have a higher rate of wrongful convictions you have a lengthier appeal process you may have more errors injected into the process," Hawley said.

A higher rate of wrongful convictions will also come at a cost to taxpayers. It is estimated that if federal defenders save their clients an average of one month in prison- the annual savings would total $260-million.
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