Main content

Defender Services - Annual Report 2016

A fair and impartial criminal justice system requires that all defendants have access to legal representation and other defense services. The Judiciary protects the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the rights provided under the Criminal Justice Act through the work of dedicated federal defenders and panel attorneys.

Criminal Justice Act Program Review

The Judiciary’s comprehensive review of the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 (CJA) program made significant progress in 2016. The two-year study, which began in April 2015, is the first comprehensive look at the federal public defense system in over 20 years. The ad hoc committee is made up of federal judges, defense attorneys, a federal court employee, a former federal prosecutor, and a law professor.

The ad hoc committee, established by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and chaired by Judge Kathleen Cardone of the Texas Western District, held seven public hearings — in Santa Fe, NM; Miami, FL; Portland, OR; Birmingham, AL; San Francisco, CA; Philadelphia, PA; and Minneapolis, MN.  Gavel-to-gavel video coverage of the hearings expanded their reach to a wide audience on the committee’s public website,, which also houses a complete archive of transcripts and submissions. During approximately 100 hours of public hearings, the committee heard from more than 230 witnesses representing a wide array of stakeholders, including federal judges, federal defenders, CJA panel attorneys, former federal defender clients, state court judges and defenders, U.S. attorneys, professors, and nonprofit groups and other legal organizations.

CJA panel listens to testimony.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) program listens to comments during a hearing in Minneapolis, MN.

The committee also surveyed nearly 10,000 panel attorneys, eliciting responses from more than half of them. Committee members attended and spoke with participants at trainings and conferences across the country, including the 2016 Federal Defender Conference, the 2016 Panel Attorney District Representatives Conference, and CJA panel attorneys’ seminars.  In addition, the committee consulted with members of the Defender Services Committee, the Defender Services Advisory Group, the Death Penalty Working Group, and Administrative Office (AO) staff. The committee is expected to deliver its report to the Judicial Conference in 2017.

Revisions to Model CJA Plan

In 2016, the Judicial Conference approved a new CJA Model Plan for Implementation and Administration of the Criminal Justice Act, the first substantial revision in over 25 years.

Under the CJA, each judicial district must create a written plan for providing representation and other defense services to eligible defendants. The plan must be approved by the judicial council of the circuit.  The Model CJA Plan — originally developed in 1965 — serves as a resource for district courts in drafting their local CJA plans.  It addresses the establishment of federal defender organizations, qualification standards and training requirements for CJA panel members, and policies concerning the appointment of counsel in capital cases.

The 2016 Model CJA Plan includes important updates to account for the legal, policy, and programmatic changes that have taken place since the model plan was last revised.  A panel composed of federal defenders, panel attorneys, and AO staff spent months studying relevant policies and procedures.  Based on this review, and building on innovative practices developed locally by district courts around the country, the group revised the model plan to ensure that it aligns with Judicial Conference policy, legal precedent, and acceptable standards of practice for the legal profession. 

Training for Federal Defenders and CJA Panel Attorneys

In 2016, the AO held or provided assistance with numerous training events for CJA panel attorneys and federal defender attorneys, paralegals, and investigators. The programs included national, local, and webinar events and provided substantive legal training on criminal law and procedure and skills-based workshops on trial practice, electronic case management, legal writing, and sentencing mitigation.  Attendees also received training on administrative and managerial issues. Attendance increased by more than 30 percent over fiscal year 2015.

Electronic Voucher System

Following a two-year training, deployment, and implementation process, all of the federal district courts and courts of appeals in 2016 were able to take advantage of eVoucher, an electronic system for processing and paying vouchers submitted by defense attorneys and others who provide services to indigent criminal defendants. The eVoucher payment system enables electronic submission, management, and approval of vouchers and associated documents. Developed by the Nevada District Court and adopted for Judiciary-wide use, it streamlines procedures, provides cost savings, and improves financial management and quality assurance in payments to attorneys appointed to represent criminal defendants under the Criminal Justice Act.  In FY 2016, 8,713 CJA-appointed attorneys were paid using the new system.

IT Enhancements

Information technology (IT) services for the defender community were improved in 2016.  The federal defender Case Management System and the Defender Services Management Information System were enhanced to resolve inter-system issues and improve the quality of data received from federal defender organizations (FDO). Also, after a yearlong pilot, wireless network technology was rolled out to all FDOs.  Wireless connectivity will allow FDO staff to work and collaborate within their office space using government-owned laptops, tablets, and mobile devices without having to log on to an outside wireless connection.

E-Discovery Guidance

New guidance was sent to stakeholders across the criminal justice system that addresses the ability of criminal defendants detained pending trial to review electronically stored information (ESI or e-discovery) relevant to their cases. Titled Guidance for the Provision of ESI to Detainees, it incorporates input from federal judges, defense attorneys, and federal prosecutors, among others.

Currently, jails and other detention facilities have procedures to provide pretrial detainees with access to paper discovery, but they are not equipped to facilitate access to e-discovery. Most information relevant to federal criminal cases today exists in digital format, such as cell phone data obtained at the time of arrest or pursuant to a search warrant. Criminal defendants need to be able to review such information and discuss it with attorneys.

The transition from paper to e-discovery will also produce cost savings and reduce delays for the criminal justice system. For instance, investing in devices for use in a detention facility cuts expenses and saves time for attorneys who sometimes have to travel to remote locations to permit detained clients to review e-discovery on their electronic devices. This new guidance is the product of the AO-Department of Justice Joint Working Group on Electronic Technology in the Criminal Justice System.