During the government shutdown, we’re told, essential public safety functions will continue.
That doesn’t mean “public safety” functions aren’t being performed by a skeleton crew.
Yesterday, I got an email from Ace Crawford, the public information officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota, that read like so:
“All press releases will be suspended during the duration of the government shutdown. Staff availability will be limited, but if you have an urgent press matter, please call the Sioux Falls office at 605.330.4400 for assistance.”
What that email meant was that Ace is out of a job during the shutdown. She’s not alone. Public information officers are not considered “essential” personnel much of anywhere.
The temporary disappearance of press releases and other public outreach is only the start of the impact on federal prosecutors.
I had to dial U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson directly, for example, because his assistant is furloughed. Between the shutdown and the sequester, about 40 percent of Johnson’s staff is gone.
All the criminal division lawyers are still on the job, but there’s only one legal assistant per office - Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Pierre – and one victim/witness assistant for the entire state.
Half the civil division lawyers are out, too. They collect restitution for crime victims, file civil cases dealing with Medicare fraud and defend the federal government when it’s sued. That could be anything from a medical malpractice case with the Indian Health Service or Veteran’s Administration Hospital to someone who slips and falls in the hallway on the way to court in Rapid City.
Johnson couldn’t say much about how his office decided who stayed and who went, but he didn’t have to come up with the answer from scratch. The threat of a government shutdown has appeared a few times since he took the job in 2009, so there was a road map.
“I’ve probably been through this four times already,” Johnson said.
The difference this time is that the shutdown actually happened.
So what will it mean? If the shutdown drags on, criminal cases will proceed more slowly. It will also mean fewer collections for crime victims, at least for the time being.
The story is slightly different for the federal public defender’s office of South Dakota. Neil Fulton, who supervises public defenders in Fargo, Sioux Falls, Bismarck, Rapid City and Pierre, works for the U.S. Courts. That’s separate from the Department of Justice, which employs Johnson.
U.S. Courts will stay open at full staff for 10 business days, Fulton said. If the shutdown lasts longer than that, then federal public defenders will need to think about cuts, but Fulton doubts he’d see any changes.
There are two lawyers each in Sioux Falls, Fargo and Bismarck and three each in Pierre and Rapid City. Each office has one legal assistant. That means there isn’t much fat to cut. Defendants are entitled to representation, so “if there’s criminal prosecution moving forward at all, we have to stay open.”
Johnson has made his feelings on cuts to federal criminal justice programs known already.
Fulton’s feelings about the shutdown aren’t far off.
“It’s really unfortunate that the judiciary, being a non-political branch of government, is being impacted like this,” he said.
Something tells me there are a lot of “non-political” federal government employees, from National Parks employees to commissary workers at military bases, who share a similar sentiment.