With the nation’s judges warning of dire consequences if federal budget cuts are not restored, the head of Chicago’s Federal Court says his operations are down 25 percent but the workload has never been greater.
And the judges warn public safety will be on the line if further cuts are implemented.
"We have to do the public’s work in resolving criminal cases," warned Chief Federal Judge Ruben Castillo. "We’re not just like a forest or park who can close their doors."
Castillo joined other chief judges in a letter to Congress, warning that court operations are being "slashed to the bone" with current staffing at the lowest level in 14 years.
"When someone is released from prison, we don’t just throw them on the street," said Castillo. "We monitor their behavior, potential drug use, and community service."
Indeed, the number of ex-offenders under supervision already tops 187,000 nationwide, a number expected to top 191,000 next year. But the probation system is already reeling under ten percent cuts, with probation and pretrial services down some 600 officers since 2011.
Supervisors warn drug testing, in-person meetings, and GPS tracking are among the precautionary systems being put in jeopardy.
"These are the officers who do searches for weapons, illegal drugs, and child pornography," the judges write. "Cuts to officer staffing levels have forced cutbacks in these levels to crisis levels, meaning less deterrence, detection, and response to possible criminal activity by federal defendants in the community, and more illegal weapons, drugs, and other contraband left in the community."
In the courthouse, judges warn that the 30 percent cut to court security has strained the system to the max, with "security vulnerabilities throughout the federal court system." In New York, cuts forced postponement of the scheduled trial of Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law.
Castillo warned that further slashing would be devastating.
"All I can do is cut people and shut down this court a couple of days a week," he warns. "The collateral consequences of doing that are huge."
The budget cuts are being felt on both sides of the courtroom. In Chicago, the U.S. Attorney’s office is down 14 prosecutors and 32 support staff. Replacements can't be hired. And the public defender’s office said the ongoing financial troubles mean rights guaranteed in the Constitution are being put at risk.
"We cannot give anyone a salary increase," said chief Public Defender Carol Brook. "We cannot replace anybody that left."
"We will go a long way to continue to represent the people who need our counsel under the 6th amendment," said said. "But at some point, if Congress doesn’t recognize that we need to be adequately funded, that system is going to collapse."
Castillo contends the broad sword which Congress wielded in sequestration was inappropriate for the courts’ specialized mission.