Guest opinion: Sequester cuts stymie Montana crimefighting efforts

2013-09-03T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Sequester cuts stymie Montana crimefighting effortsBy MICHAEL W. COTTER U.S. Attorney for Montana The Billings Gazette

Sequestration has come home to roost.

Two years ago, when Congress failed to reach a compromise on a budget that would reduce the national deficit, sequestration — automatic across-the-board spending cuts imposed upon the federal government — was born. Its effects are real and they are growing.

During fiscal year 2013, sequestration cut $1.6 billion from the Department of Justice budget. Unless Congress takes constructive action, even more budget cuts will be mandated in 2014, potentially increasing by an estimated 30 percent to $2.1 billion.

163,000 criminal cases

As a result of budget shortfalls and uncertainties, the department’s national workforce has been reduced. A hiring freeze implemented in January 2011 continues, resulting in the loss of more than 3,200 employees. We have implemented deep cuts to both operations and staff. The Justice Department’s mission and its employees are inextricably linked: the department cannot fulfill its mission without its employees. Because of sequestration, fewer employees are available to do the work entrusted to the department, jeopardizing our ability to ensure that justice is served.

During FY 2012, there were roughly 163,000 criminal matters handled by the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices across this country. Approximately 88,800 criminal defendants had their cases resolved, with 93 percent of those defendants pleading guilty or being convicted following a trial. On the civil side, over 100,000 matters were handled by these offices, and during 2012, more than $13.1 billion owed to the United States as a result of health care, financial and mortgage fraud, among other crimes, was collected. However, the ability of the Department of Justice to keep building upon its accomplishments of the last four years is now in jeopardy.

What does this mean for Montana? In FY 2013, the office of the Montana U.S. Attorney saw its budget reduced by 12 percent, with $672,000 being stripped away. Short of action by Congress to restore funding, that sum will only grow in FY 2014. During FY 2013, 15 percent of our workforce either transferred or retired, and due to the hiring freeze we are unable to fill any of these vacancies.

Days off without pay

Moreover, sequestration is likely to force remaining Justice Department employees to take extended furlough days — days off without pay — in FY 2014. Absent a resolution to the budget standoff, the resulting furloughs will affect lawyers, agents, correctional officers and other critical support staff.

In addition, federal dollars delivered through grants to aid state and local law enforcement efforts will be further cut. All of this translates into fewer prosecutions and fewer criminals being apprehended and brought to justice.

These mandatory cuts stymie the efforts of law enforcement to fight crime in the Bakken and throughout Montana. Unless Congress takes constructive steps to agree upon a reasonable budget, the very tangible impacts of these cuts will increase in the coming year. There will be repercussions for the people of Montana and for the safety of their communities. We deserve better. Please join me in urging members of Congress to end sequestration and responsibly fund the Department of Justice.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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