SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The number of federal public defenders in New Mexico could decline because of budget cuts in the coming year.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports (http://bit.ly/1alUU5h) that the Office of the Federal Public Defender might have to lay off as many as 15 lawyers and other staff in New Mexico.
The agency already has unfilled vacancies due to the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Training money has been eliminated. And staff has had to take eight days of unpaid leave.
Federal Public Defender districts across the country have been informed that they must reduce their spending by 14 percent in the new fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, on top of a 9 percent reduction this year.
The Federal Public Defender currently employs 59 people in New Mexico, including 16 trial lawyers in the main office in Albuquerque and 13 trial lawyers in Las Cruces. Both offices have two research and writing specialists, who are also lawyers.
Already, the Las Cruces office has had to forgo a receptionist, and it has been told that it will not be able to replace an interpreter who retired.
The New Mexico district was the sixth busiest in the country in fiscal year 2012, and this year, it is expected to move up to fourth highest for case openings.
Federal public defenders and other defense lawyers say the cuts are short-sighted and might end up costing the government more money because more cases will be turned over to higher-paid private attorneys.
“The Federal Public Defender Office has been tightening its belt for many years. It is a lean organization,” said Barbara Mandel, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “It’s not overspending. It’s not wasteful. (Cutting its budget further) is penny wise and pound foolish.”
Mandel said she’s worried that the cuts could potentially lead to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, which could add to the cost of the cuts. People could be wrongly convicted and bring cases in court that would end up costing the government money, Mandel said.
While there is a risk that caseloads could increase with the cuts, Robert Kinney, the supervisor of the Las Cruces branch of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, said he is mindful of this issue and monitors assignments closely to “make sure our ratio is workable.” Rather than assigning a lawyer too many cases, he will turn them down.
But he is concerned about staff morale.
“We hire people who are dedicated professionals, some of whom have given up private practice to work for us. Cuts like these have the potential of having a chilling effect on our ability to hire people.”