WASHINGTON (AP) -- The nation's two top law enforcement officers have warned that looming across-the-board spending cuts at the Justice Department and the FBI would erode public safety in every city and town in the nation.
The impending cuts would cause FBI furloughs equivalent in size to closing the bureau's offices in Chicago, Miami and Baltimore, slash the number of civil and criminal cases filed by federal prosecutors and delay the full use of four new prisons while taxing the ability to keep inmates and guards safe.
"These would be cuts that impact not just DOJ employees, they would impact our citizens, and our safety, in every city and town in the country," said Attorney General Eric Holder.
If the cuts take place, "the FBI would be required to do less in all its programs, including against al-Qaida and its affiliated groups, as well as the growing and sophisticated threats from cyberattacks, foreign intelligence and national and transnational criminal activities," said FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Holder and Mueller expressed their concern in letters to Congress released Thursday by Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
The automatic, across-the-board cuts — a process known as sequestration — were put into play by a bipartisan budget compromise in August 2011 that averted a default on the federal debt. But Congress failed to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by the end of 2012 to avoid the automatic cuts. A last-minute December deal between President Obama and Congress postponed the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts until March 1. Obama is calling on Congress to enact small spending reductions, close tax loopholes and put off the deadline again. So far, Republicans have rejected the idea.
According to Mueller, across-the-board FBI reductions of $550 million "would have the net effect of cutting 2,285 employees — including 775 agents — through furloughs and a hiring freeze."
"To put these numbers in perspective, the loss of work years from the furloughs and hiring freeze ... is the equivalent of shutting down three of the FBI's largest field offices — Chicago, Miami and Baltimore," the FBI director added.
"The FBI's ability to proactively penetrate and disrupt terrorist plans and groups prior to an attack would be impacted," said an attachment to Mueller's letter. "High priority investigations would stall as workload is spread among a reduced workforce. Overseas operations would be substantially scaled back, including in-theater support in Afghanistan where U.S. military and coalition operations rely on FBI investigative and forensic programs."
The FBI director said cuts could delay background checks on prospective gun buyers and — because the government is allowed only three days to complete them before sales go through — could lead to weapons falling into dangerous hands.
Holder wrote that the Justice Department would slash the number of cases that U.S. attorneys across the nation bring by 2,600 this year and would delay the use of four new prisons. The government won't be able to activate prisons at Yazoo City, Miss., and Hazelton, W.Va., and would have to suspend the partially completed activation of prisons in Berlin, N.H., and Aliceville, Ala.
Justice Department spending would be cut by 9 percent, or $1.6 billion, through the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
The Justice Department says the 94 U.S. Attorney offices around the country would bring 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases in the courts. U.S. Attorney offices handled over 83,000 civil cases and filed over 69,000 criminal cases in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.
Attorney Peter Bennett, chairman of the American Bar Association's special standing committee on judicial independence, says "the net result of the cuts will be that the Justice Department will have to be much more selective in which cases it can take."
"On the criminal side, either they have to prosecute diligently or they've got a constitutional issue that allows the defendant to walk" because of the right to a speedy trial, said Bennett. "Criminal cases will be tried first while those civil cases that get filed will languish in the system. That drives up the cost of litigation and has a financial impact on the business community, which relies on efficiently functioning courts in order to do business."
DOJ regularly declines to bring smaller civil and criminal cases in order to concentrate on larger ones. Many of these declined cases get referred to state and local authorities for possible action there. So the cuts would expand a process that already goes on.
The federal Bureau of Prisons, which houses nearly 218,000 inmates, would be hit hard.
Spending would be cut by $338 million. BOP faces an average furlough of 12 days for all its 36,700 employees. This would be equivalent to loosing 5 percent of the prison staff, including 1,300 correctional officers.
The prison system will always maintain enough staff for security purposes, but intermittent partial or full lockdowns may be required, the department says. Prison officials will have to curtail drug treatment and job training. Holder warned that leaving inmates idle raises the risk of misconduct and violence and could raise taxpayer costs in the long run if inmates are released with less ability to succeed at legal occupations outside.
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