The Judicial Conference of the United States announced new cost-cutting measures today in anticipation of continued budget cuts, including reducing the amount of courthouse space being used and advocating for legislation that would give judges more discretion at sentencing to save money on offender supervision.
Following the biannual meeting of the conference, Chief Judge William Traxler Jr., chairman of the judicial conference’s executive committee, said the judiciary was planning for "the worst-case scenario" as the end of the current fiscal year—September 30—approached.
The 26-member conference, which makes policy for the federal courts and includes chief judges from federal courts nationwide, agreed to pursue legislation giving judges the ability to hand down sentences below mandatory minimums. The federal judiciary pays for offender supervision, and in a news release officials noted that offenders spend less time under supervision when they aren't subject to mandatory minimums.
Mandatory minimums have been on the mind of officials in the other two branches of government this year as well. Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate in March, the Justice Safety Valve Act, would give judges greater sentencing discretion. Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said he would support the legislation.
According to the federal judiciary, it costs about $279 per month to supervise an offender. The judicial conference said it would seek additional legislation allowing courts to end supervision sooner for offenders released because they were dying, physically incapacitated or deemed too old to pose a threat to society.
In the more immediate future, the judicial conference adopted a new policy to not allow new courthouse space, with the exception of construction approved by Congress, and to reduce the overall space used by the judiciary by three percent by the end of 2018. Traxler didn't immediately know how many square feet of space that would entail.
Traxler said individual departments and courthouses were developing cost-saving measures as the judiciary faced another year of belt-tightening under mandated budget cuts known as sequestration. He said the judiciary was already making cuts to courthouse security, training, information technology and a range of other operations. "You look at everything," he said.
"What we're doing probably is a combination of both, we're trying to do things like overall rent reduction in combination with individual solutions that the particular departments come up with," he said. When it came to decisions such as closing courthouses, though, "a whole lot of it that's going on is based on individual decisions, court-particular decisions.”
Congress has yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins on October 1. It's unclear if sequestration, which cut $350 million from the judiciary's budget last year, will continue. Appropriations committees in both houses of Congress approved budgets that would at a minimum roughly restore funding to the judiciary at pre-sequestration levels, but a partisan battle in Congress over funding priorities could throw those plans off track.
The judiciary's budget for indigent criminal defense has been an area of particular concern. Federal public defenders were forced to take furloughs and absorb significant cuts last year under sequestration.
Traxler said today that payments to court-appointed private lawyers for the last two weeks of the current fiscal year will have to be deferred to fiscal year 2014 because the judiciary had run out of money. Those payments would add about $20 million to next year's budget, according to a judiciary spokesman. The executive committee of the judicial conference decided last month to reduce hourly rates for private court-appointed lawyers and defer up to four weeks of payments next year to avoid more serious consequences for public defender offices.
In a September 10 letter to the White House, U.S. District Judge John Bates, secretary of the judicial conference, asked the president to support the judiciary's effort to secure more funding. Chief judges of the 87 federal district courts have also written to Congress. Traxler said today that the judicial conference wasn't involved in public outreach efforts by individual judges and other supporters of the federal defenders.
The judicial conference also announced it would extend a pilot project allowing cameras in certain federal courthouses by one year.