Twenty-three Democratic U.S. senators are urging congressional appropriators to increase spending on federal public defenders beyond what is proposed in pending legislation or risk significant job cuts. In a letter to leaders of the Appropriations Committee, the 23 senators said more money was needed for fiscal year 2024 s to "maintain the right to counsel in federal court," Reuters reports. Appropriations bills have yet to pass either chamber of Congress, which faces a Nov. 17 deadline to pass spending legislation or another stop-gap spending measure to avert a partial government shutdown. The letter was organized by Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT), a former public defender, and counts among its signatories all of the Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, including its chair, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The letter urged the Senate Appropriations Committee to increase funding to at least $1.52 billion to "maintain the right to counsel in federal court and continue the bipartisan support this program has historically received." Bills that have advanced through committees in the Republican-led House of Representatives and Democrat-controlled Senate instead call for providing the public defenders $1.41 billion and $1.38 billion, respectively. Those levels are below what the judiciary requested on behalf of the federal defenders and fail to account for an "unusual" $110 million carried over from 2022 that was left unspent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the letter said. "Nearly 9 in 10 individuals charged with a federal crime cannot afford legal representation and thus are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel," the letter said. "Preserving the public defender workforce is essential to our justice system." Members of the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary's policymaking body, also have pushed for a remedy to the budget shortfall currently proposed for the federal defenders, who are part of the judiciary.