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Sequestration's Impact on Judiciary's Programs and Operations

Budget sequestration reduced the Judiciary’s overall funding by nearly $350 million from the level provided in fiscal year 2012. The impact of sequestration on the Judiciary is particularly harsh because the courts have no control over their workload. The courts must react to the cases they receive from the Executive Branch, individuals, and businesses.

To mitigate the impact of sequestration on employees, the courts slashed non-salary budgets, and cut funding for training, information technology, supplies, and equipment. Even with these reductions, on a national level, the Judiciary struggles.

Impact on Court Staff Nationwide

Nationally, there are over 3,200—nearly 15 percent—fewer on-board staff in our clerk’s offices, circuit units, and probation and pretrial services offices than in July 2011. This includes 1,200 staff the courts lost in FY 2013 alone. Current national on-board staffing levels are at December 1997 levels. In addition, courts furloughed staff approximately 41,000 hours through July 2013.

In the Defender Services account, the on-board staffing level in federal defender organizations has declined by over 6 percent since the beginning of FY 2013, falling to June 2009 levels by the end of the fiscal year.

Impact on Appellate and Circuit Unit Operations

From 2011 to 2012, the Courts of Appeals experienced an increase in filings, with a slight decline, 2 percent, in 2013. At the same time, due to reductions in funding, the Courts of Appeals eliminated positions and did not fill vacancies, resulting in a 12 percent staffing reduction across the country. To retain existing staff and minimize the impact on court services to the public, court unit executives also have severely limited funding for equipment, maintenance, and supplies.

Impact on District Court Operations

Funding under sequestration in FY 2013 had a significantly negative impact on district court operations nationwide. As of the end of fiscal year 2013, district court clerk’s offices had reduced on-board staffing by 304 staff. This is a 4.6 percent staffing reduction compared to on-board staffing levels at the end of FY 2012.

Clerk’s office staff are essential to the processing of cases and the administration of court programs such as jury management, court interpreting, and court reporting. Without adequate staffing, processing of cases is slowed and program services to the public are reduced, delaying the disposition and resolution of cases.

To fund salaries, as of the end of the FY 2013, district courts had reprogrammed $11.7 million from other clerk’s office funds (e.g., money provided for information technology, space and facilities, travel, supplies, training). While the transfer of these funds to cover salaries allowed many courts to retain experienced staff, it was to the detriment of critical operations. It reduced funds available for information technology upgrades at a time when technology is a vital tool for achieving efficiencies, and for staff training when staff are being asked to take on new duties because of workforce reductions.

The courts now are being forced to take more drastic measures as those accounts are depleted. Some have resorted to workforce reductions. Other courts, which have furloughed staff, have reduced services on certain days.

Impact on Bankruptcy Court Operations

Budget and staffing formula reductions in the bankruptcy system have been significant over the past several years. Between 2007 and the end of FY 2013, staffing levels decreased 21.2 percent, while the number of docket entries increased nearly 7 percent. Bankruptcy courts have managed to keep up with workload by using technology and locally developed applications  to increase efficiency in case management, to make information more accessible, and to allocate workload among court staff.

In 2013, however, the number of factors reducing bankruptcy court funding dramatically increased: changes to the work measurement formula equated to a 25 percent reduction over the previous year; bankruptcy filings (which directly relate to staffing levels) decreased 14 percent from 2012 levels; and the effects of sequestration forced courts to furlough employees and reduce their funding for equipment, maintenance, and supplies significantly.

Funding cutbacks will have a long-term impact. Local application development and programming efforts—which have enabled the bankruptcy system to improve existing applications and to develop and improve court-developed systems—will no longer be sustainable. Internal and external training programs have been sharply reduced or eliminated. Staff cross-training has been reduced, exposing the courts to a loss of critical skill sets in the wake of retirements or separations. Also, in many courts, the hours the court is open to the public were reduced.

Impact on Federal Defender Organizations and Panel Attorneys

The Congressionally imposed sequestration funding levels were determined by making an across-the-board cut to each program’s FY 2012 appropriation. The FY 2012 appropriation, however, was insufficient to meet the federal defender and panel attorney FY 2013 requirements. Then sequestration cut the Defender Services program by $52 million, forcing them to terminate staff and furlough employees. In FY 2013, staffing in federal defender organizations was reduced by 400 jobs, and approximately 20,600 furlough days were imposed.

Many of the community defender organizations funded by Criminal Justice Act (CJA) grants reduced contributions to employee retirement accounts and others reduced the employer share of health insurance premiums. Lack of funding for case-related travel and expert services caused some defenders to decline or delay cases. Federal defender and CJA panel attorney training was drastically reduced, and many defenders had to curtail support for panel attorneys. Panel attorney payments totaling $15.8 million were deferred beginning on September 17, 2013, through the end of the fiscal year.

In order to maintain projected on-board defender office staffing nationally as of the beginning of FY 2014, the Executive Committee authorized deferral of up to four weeks of panel attorney payments into FY 2015, and imposed a temporary emergency hourly rate reduction of $15, to $163 and $110, respectively for capital and non-capital work performed from September 1, 2013, through September 30, 2014.

Impact on Probation and Pretrial Services

Sequestration caused severe reductions to the probation and pretrial services system. Salary allotments were reduced by 14 percent, law enforcement allotments were cut by 20 percent, and all unallotted funds for Second Chance Act services were eliminated in the final financial plan. Sequestration reduced probation and pretrial officer staffing 11 percent compared to peak staffing levels in 2011, delayed completion of work for the courts, and put public safety at risk. Reduced staffing means larger caseloads per officer, which adversely impacts the deterrence and detection of criminal activity by federal defendants and offenders. With fewer staff, presentence investigations are taking approximately 4 percent longer to complete than they did in 2010. At the same time, there has been a 5 percent increase in the number of supervision cases, adding an average of nine offenders per officer caseload.

Funds that pay for alternatives to pretrial detention, electronic monitoring, and supervision-related travel were cut 20 percent. In many districts, budget cuts forced reductions in the use of contract mental health, substance abuse, and sex offender treatment services. From December 2012 through the end of FY 2013, drug testing is down by approximately 40 percent nationwide and electronic monitoring by 30 percent due to budget cuts. Substance abuse treatment is provided to 11 percent fewer patients, and 24 percent fewer treatment dollars have been spent since FY 2010. Mental health treatment has been provided to 5 percent fewer patients, and 12 percent fewer dollars have been spent since FY 2010. Failures or delays in placing defendants and offenders in appropriate treatment programs can jeopardize their successful re-entry into the community or create a risk to public safety.

Also, as a result of sequestration, funding for programs at the Judiciary’s National Training Academy for probation and pretrial services officers has been reduced by $1.6 million, forcing the cancellation and postponement of numerous training and instructor certification classes.

Impact on the National IT Program

Funding for the IT program has been reduced by more than $100 million from full requirements in FY 2013. This was accomplished by limiting new initiatives, extending timetables for development and implementation of existing projects, extending cyclical replacement schedules for hardware and software, curtailing upgrades to products and services, and reducing funds for local IT expenditures by the courts. In the short run, cuts of this nature can be managed. However, the Judiciary can operate with fewer staff only when it is able to take advantage of efficiencies gained  by investing in technology. The continuation of post-sequestration level funding will limit future investment in IT initiatives that can be leveraged to save the Judiciary money in the long term.

Impact on Space

Rent payments account for $1 billion of the Judiciary’s budget. Given the federal government’s bleak fiscal outlook, the Judicial Conference approved three national space reduction policies:  a “No Net New” policy, a Judiciary-wide 3 percent space reduction target by the end of FY 2018, and, to implement these policies, a required space and rent management plan by each circuit judicial council, articulating how these policies will be implemented.

Current space-reduction initiatives are focused on office space: (1) identifying commercial leases that can be terminated, avoiding the need for renewal by moving offices into nearby courthouses or leasing smaller amounts of space; (2) working with the circuits to identify excess space that can be reduced in a cost-effective manner based on current and project staffing levels; (3) pursuing the Integrated Workplace Initiative, which seeks to create smaller and more efficient workplaces to reflect changing employee work styles; and (4) asking circuit judicial councils to identify additional non-resident courthouses that can be recommended for closure. To realize long-term savings, certain space-reducing efforts will require short-term funding for design, renovations, consolidations, and relocations.

Impact on Court Security

Due to sequestration, the FY 2013 court security enacted budget was $26.2 million lower than the final FY 2013 budget request. To address this shortfall, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference approved the following measures: (1) repurposing prior-year carry-forward balances for more critical requirements; (2) reducing funding for court security officer work hours; and (3) reducing funding for security systems and equipment by approximately 30 percent below the FY 2013 request. These measures successfully kept court security expenditures within the available funding. With the continued threat of sequestration in FY 2014, the Judicial Security Committee developed funding contingency plans to generate cost savings in ways that have the least impact on security and are most equitable to all courts.