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Hiring freeze lifted for federal public defenders amid new funding

Appropriators had said they were working to address a budget pitfall

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was among lawmakers who had said they were working to address a budget pitfall for federal public defenders.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was among lawmakers who had said they were working to address a budget pitfall for federal public defenders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Federal public defenders would avoid the most dire budget scenarios under the fiscal 2024 funding package unveiled Thursday, with Congress set to spend tens of millions of dollars more than previous proposals from the House and Senate.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, alluding to the six-bill appropriations package, said federal defender offices would no longer be subject to a hiring freeze — a move that started last July amid uncertainty about fiscal 2024 funding.

Federal defenders, which are tasked with representing poor defendants, have said the hiring freeze stretched their resources and left them at the mercy of natural staff attrition.

Appropriators had said they were working to address a budget pitfall for federal public defenders this funding cycle.

Lawmakers in both chambers urged appropriators to fund the program above the figures outlined in the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2024 Financial Services and General Government spending bill, which covers defender services.

The fiscal 2024 funding package includes $1.45 billion for defender services. The Senate proposal included $1.38 billion for defender services, while the House proposal would have provided $1.41 billion for the account.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would have liked full funding for the federal public defenders, but said he’s glad the final figure was not a “huge haircut.”

“You can only have a reasonable defense if the public defender’s office is reasonably staffed,” he said. “But at least the number is pretty close.”

Public defenders and their supporters had described the earlier House and Senate proposals as a crisis in the making, and judiciary officials had warned the levels could lead to layoffs.

Earlier this year, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who leads his chamber’s Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, called it a “priority” to provide adequate funding, “even in a tough budget environment.”
Lawmakers raised the budget pitfall issue with judiciary officials as well.

A group of Senate Democrats, in a Feb. 29 letter, said they thought that accounting decisions in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts gave “inadequate weight” to the services of the federal defenders.

The lawmaker letter, which was sent weeks before the compromise funding text was released, said a funding shortfall had put the federal public defenders in “dire financial straits,” at a time when federal defender staffing is “below the level recommended by the Administrative Office’s most recent work management study.”

“We write to you to request the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Judicial Conference ensure that the decisions that led to the FY24 budget requests are not repeated for FY25,” the letter read.

Judiciary officials responded in a letter that they’ve been expressing concern about the funding issue for months. The judiciary officials also wrote that the fiscal 2025 budget request asks for $1.69 billion for defender services.

“We assure you that full funding of the FY 2025 request will provide the necessary resources to support the requirements of this program,” the letter states.

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