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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Federal Judges Worry Over NY Budget Cuts

MANHATTAN (CN) - Budget cuts of $170 million to courts in New York state pose safety risks as some of these institutions stage prominent terrorism trials, the chief judge for the Southern District of New York testified.

In 2010, U.S. Marshals deployed heavy security measures during the terrorism trials of former Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Ghailani and Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, but all screening took place inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse.

"Best practices dictate that you screen outside the building," Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska told a six-person task force studying the effects of the cuts Friday.

Marshals have complained about the current protocols, which were drawn up in 1998, before either of the bombings of the nearby World Trade Center, Preska said. But budget constraints have stopped the court from building the outdoor pavilion for security screening.

The Southern District is the country's largest federal court, employing 41 federal judges and admitting 2,500 visitors a day, she added.

In 2011, the Southern District coped with a 7.6 percent budget cut by postponing purchases of new technology and equipment, without cutting jobs, a preliminary report states.

These decisions diminished public access to the insider-trading trial of hedge fund tycoon Raj Rajaratnam, when a live transmission to the press and overflow rooms experienced technical glitches, Preska said.

Additional cuts of 10 to 15 percent next year could force the court to fire more than 15 percent of nonjudicial staff in the clerk, probation, pretrial services and district executive offices, the preliminary report states.

These layoffs may prevent the court from funding narcotics testing and treatment during bail investigations, Preska testified.

A pie chart to which she referred noted that narcotics cases account for 45 percent of the court's cases.

Cuts in the probation department could prevent the type of random searches that find child pornography on the computer of a sex offender, Preska said.

The chief judge of New York's Eastern District echoed Preska's concerns. That court's budget issues are complicated by the fact that the district tries a "great number of death penalty cases, which cost a lot of money," Chief U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon said.

Chief U.S. Probation Officer Eileen Kelly estimated that funding cuts would put her short by 24 people, impacting postconviction supervision and work and education programs.

The federal sentencing formula imposes stricter supervision on drug offenders than sex offenders or Mafia soldiers, Kelly complained, adding that organized crime is rampant in the Eastern District.

Sentencing will not change to meet budgetary constraints, she told the panel.

"I don't think that judges are going to sentence people based on finances," Kelly said.

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