Updated at 5:09 p.m.
Facing around $15 million in budget cuts, District of Columbia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington offered more details yesterday on the D.C. courts' plan to cope with mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The plan includes cutting back on contracts for rodent control and other maintenance services, slowing progress on construction projects, and training employees to do other work in light of a hiring freeze.
Washington and other court officials have declined to discuss the court system's sequestration plan in the past, except to say that they don't expect layoffs or furloughs for the time being. Appearing yesterday before the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations committee for an oversight hearing, however, members pressed Washington and District of Columbia Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield for more information.
Washington said that the courts' priority was finding ways to save money without affecting case processing, which included cutting or scaling back contracts for maintenance – rodent control, for instance – and construction. He said the courts were able to absorb some of the cuts by unofficially holding vacant positions open in anticipation of sequestration and a hiring freeze.
When asked about the cuts after the hearing, court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz said in a statement that it made sense to scale back the courts' cleaning contract because it represented one of the largest budget items and wouldn't affect case processing. "Clearly this is not ideal, but given fiscal constraints, this was one of the ways the Courts could make cuts while continuing to meet the needs of our community,” she said.
Under sequestration, which went into effect March 1, the court system will have to find five percent in cuts across its $289 million budget, which includes about $195 million for court operations, $39 million in capital projects, and the $55 million budget for defender services, which pays for lawyers to represent indigent defendants.
According to an Office of Management and Budget report released March 1, the court system will face about $12 million in cuts to its operations and capital budget and $3 million in cuts to the defender services budget.
Washington said the court had already taken steps to control costs for defender services, including staggering calendars so lawyers don't waste time waiting and setting up a system in which lawyers could agree to be paid flat fees for certain types of work. The flat fee system allowed court officials to better predict expenses, he said.
Washington told the committee that the court was cross-training employees to meet short-term needs while the hiring freeze was in effect, but warned that with 10,000 people on average visiting the courts daily, it wasn't a permanent fix. "We need to make sure that our workforce stays robust. We're doing what we can internally but will need some help," he said.
Nancy Ware, director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, also testified during yesterday's appropriations committee hearing. She said her agency's sequestration plan included canceling or cutting about $3 million in contracted services for offender treatment and other programs, furloughing all employees for six days, and a hiring freeze.
Ware warned that although the agency had made progress in bringing down the city's reoffending rates over the past decade, budget cuts and reductions in programs for ex-offenders could pose a threat to that success.