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Capitol Hill is buzzing about the serious problems within our federal criminal justice system. The Federal Bureau of Investigations, Department of Justice, and other agencies are under the microscope because of actual and alleged abuses of power, all while Congress begins its yearly appropriations process.
But there is another problem hiding in plain sight, one that could get worse without a course correction by Congress. It is delayed justice.
This crisis is growing at every stage of the federal justice system, from how long it takes a U.S. Attorney to decide whether to prosecute a case to the time it takes to resolve a guilty plea and complete a jury trial.
Victims and defendants alike deserve swift justice. Congress has an opportunity to prevent the wheels of justice from becoming even slower during this year’s appropriations process.
The backlog of pending criminal cases in the federal court system has increased by more than a quarter over the past five years even as the number of new arrests and criminal cases filed have declined significantly.
This has resulted in lengthy delays in the time it takes to resolve criminal cases. The average criminal case now takes nearly ten months to resolve if there is a guilty plea and more than two years if a trial is required. Many victims and defendants alike go without justice for months or even years.
The federal system is not the only one facing such a crisis as many states are seeing similar backlogs and delays in justice. Congress has a unique opportunity to lead by example and prevent these delays from worsening in the coming years.
Both the House and Senate are currently advancing proposals that inadvertently cut the budget for the federal public defense system in ways that could leave it with up to a 5 percent budget shortfall and cause it to have to lay off nearly 500 of its staff. Instead of improving the speed of justice, these proposals would undermine it.
I will always be the first to argue that we need to reduce federal spending. But not every program should be on an equal playing field when looking for ways to cut the federal budget. Our criminal justice system is a core government function and properly funding it is not a political preference. Adequately funding all actors ensures that the entire system functions efficiently and effectively.
Underfunding public defense not only harms defendants and their attorneys but has negative repercussions that ripple throughout our entire system.
It increases how much of our limited jail space is utilized by those awaiting trial — who are still innocent in the eyes of the law — rather than those who have been convicted and pose a proven public safety threat. It makes prosecutors’ jobs more difficult, increases how long it takes judges to process a case, and delays justice for victims. And these delays pull police officers away from their core duties of solving and preventing crime.
That’s why individuals from the most progressive to the most conservative agree these agencies must function effectively and why prosecutors frequently advocate for increased funding to public defenders. It is also why Americans for Prosperity supports providing the necessary resources to public defenders in both our federal and state justice systems.
Rather than rush the appropriations process and exacerbate the crisis of delayed justice by cutting public defender funding, Congress should take a close look at this problem and the resources needed to reverse it. Our federal court system publishes robust data that can be used to estimate the amount of resources our federal public defense system requires and prior reports provide comprehensive recommendations to improve the system.
We urge members of both the Senate and House to prevent this cut to the federal defenders’ budget from becoming law. A well-funded public defense system is essential to bring violent criminals to justice, protect our Sixth Amendment rights, and help victims move on from the trauma they have experienced
Jeremiah Mosteller is an attorney and criminal justice policy expert who serves as a policy director at Americans for Prosperity and a visiting fellow at the Badger Institute.
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