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Defender Services – Annual Report 2023

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

In this video, federal judges and defense attorneys discuss the significance of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Evaluation of Cardone Report Recommendations

In September 2023, the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) wrapped up a study of how the Judiciary has implemented the interim recommendations of the Cardone Committee, a panel created by the Chief Justice to assess the quality of public defense in federal courts nationwide.

The FJC’s study found that there has been limited change overall in the administration of the defense function in the federal courts, either because the Cardone Committee’s interim recommendations were not fully implemented or were implemented with limited impact because of persisting structural issues.

The FJC study was done at the request of the Judicial Conference’s Executive Committee and Defender Services Committee and began in 2020. It was a comprehensive, three-year data collection and analysis effort to assess the degree to which the Judiciary has addressed the concerns identified in the Cardone Committee report.

The Judiciary has taken several steps toward implementing the interim recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) (pdf). Also known as the Cardone Committee for its chair, Judge Kathleen Cardone of the Western District of Texas, the panel conducted a two-year review of the CJA program and transmitted its findings and recommendations to the Conference. In addition to 35 interim recommendations, the Cardone Report called for the creation of an independent federal defender commission, which would require congressional action.

New Staffing Formulas

The Judicial Conference in September 2023 approved new staffing formulas for federal defender offices (FDO) adding 197 full-time staff positions to keep up with increased workloads. The workload study of FDOs was completed in 2023, and the new formulas are effective beginning fiscal year 2024.

The new formulas more accurately reflect changes in the complex work of defenders, such as managing large volumes of electronic discovery and incorporating social work and mitigation in public defense. The additional staff would allow FDOs to provide more effective legal representation for people accused of crimes without the means to hire a private attorney.

However, expected funding levels for the Judiciary will make it difficult to hire all of the additional staff over the next two fiscal years. The Conference decided that the staffing targets will be met as funding allows.

Work measurement studies are done approximately every five years for various job categories throughout the Judiciary to ensure that staffing keeps apace with workloads. The periodic updates to the staffing formulas are designed to account for technological, procedural, financial, and workforce changes. The staffing formulas are intended to provide an analytical, data-driven method to predict the number of personnel needed to accomplish varying levels of work over a five-year period.

Training for Federal Defenders and CJA Panel Attorneys

In fiscal year 2023, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts’ Defender Services Office conducted 54 national training events for CJA panel attorneys (private attorneys appointed by the courts to represent indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act), CJA providers, federal defenders, paralegals, investigators, and other staff. The training assistance included in-person national programs, local program assistance, and virtual programs. Topics covered included substantive legal training on criminal law and procedure. A federal defender organization leadership forum focused on office policies and leadership approaches. Workshops covered a variety of topics including trial practice, electronic case management, legal writing, and sentencing mitigation. Sixteen virtual programs, 35 in-person programs, and three hybrid (in-person and live broadcast) programs were conducted.

Federal Defender for the Northern Mariana Islands

In August 2023, consistent with Judicial Conference policy and recommendations of the Cardone Committee, the Judicial Council for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approved the establishment of a federal public defender organization for the Northern Mariana Islands. Historically, the district has not met the statutorily required number of annual appointments to qualify for its own defender office. However, a district can aggregate the number of annual appointments with a neighboring district to establish eligibility for a FDO to serve both areas. The combined organization for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands will be served by a single chief federal defender and headquartered in Hagatna, Guam, with a branch office to be established on the island of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. Of 94 judicial districts, only two federal districts remain without a federal defender office.