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Editorial: Suddenly, we’re told we can’t afford justice

Updated: May 2, 2013 6:10AM

As federal spending cuts kick in under the so-called sequester, armies of advocates for all sorts of causes are in Washington, pleading their cases for more money.

As the federal government digs through its pockets for loose change, you can be sure any money that’s found will go to the most influential supplicants. The squeaky wheel gets the spending amendments.

But those without voices, who get the short end of the stick at the best of times, will be getting no stopgap funding as across-the-board spending cuts of 5 percent in domestic programs and 8 percent to the Pentagon take hold. This is the unseen evil of the cuts that went into effect on March 1.

Case in point: federal public defenders. About 10 percent of this year’s budget for federal public defenders will be cut, leaving the various offices around the country figuring out how they will cope. The Associated Press reports that some federal public defenders already have been laid off, and that many other offices are planning to force public defenders to take off six weeks or more without pay over the next six months.

At the very least, that means many defendants — who may be innocent — will sit in jail longer awaiting trial. In testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer went farther, worrying that some innocent people could be convicted while the guilty go free. It’s all the more disturbing that this is happening in the month that’s the 50th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case that guaranteed lawyers for criminal defendants.

Just in the last week, we were reminded of what happens when innocent people don’t get good enough representation at trial.

In Downstate Peru, Randy Steidl was awarded $3.5 million in a case for which he was sentenced to death even though he was innocent. And in Texas, a guilty man finally was convicted after an innocent one spent 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife.

We’d like to think we are always moving toward a fairer criminal justice system. At times like this, it doesn’t feel like it.

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