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U.S. Attorney Says Sequestration Cuts Could Make San Diego Less Safe

August 20, 2013 1:23 p.m.

GUEST

Laura Duffy - United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.

Related Story: U.S. Attorney Says Sequestration Cuts Could Make San Diego Less Safe

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Sequestration was a big story earlier this year, but the sky did not fall immediately after Congress allowed the across the board budget cuts to take effect. So interest in the story tapered off. Now U.S. attorney in San Diego Laura Duffy is hoping to revive interest in sequestration as her office faces the potential for significant cuts. She says cuts will force her to make painful choices that could potentially hurt the safety of our community. Our guest is Laura Duffy. Welcome to the show.

DUFFY: Thank you for having me, Maureen

CAVANAUGH: It was first reported yesterday the negotiation might be taking place in your office because I believe your office in the same building with the mayor's. Is your office connected to these negotiations with mayor Filner?

DUFFY: No, we're not.

CAVANAUGH: And is your office involved in the investigation with the Sunroad developer?

DUFFY: I'm not able to confirm or deny that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Sequestration cuts go into effect in March. Are are you sounding the alarm now?

DUFFY: Well, I think sequestration that precious few of us even knew the meaning of two years ago. But they did go into effect, I believe it was in April. And while that word has been bandied about a lot in the media, we are just now beginning to experience the very real adverse consequences on the entire criminal justice system. Not just prosecutions. I'm talking about defense and our judiciary.

CAVANAUGH: You wrote a piece in the UT about how sequestration will affect your office. So concentrating on your office, what are the areas you are most concerned about?

DUFFY: If you look at what's happening nationwide, then boil it down to the southern district of California, the Department of Justice incurred $1.5 billion in cuts to our budget. In fiscal year 2014, we're facing a $2.4 billion cut on top of that. We're in a hiring freeze. We've been in a freeze for 2.5 years. As we have attrition from our offices, those staff members and service support members are not replaced. And our mission at the Department of Justice, protecting the safety of the members of our community is so intertwined with our staff that as our staff decreases and is reduced, and we cannot replace our capacity to hold criminals accountable is also reduced. So we're concerned about, along the southwest border, is that sequestration has ignored the pressing and unique needs and concerns of our district. All districts, including ours, have to handle and address the general priorities in the country. National security being No. 1, protecting our citizens from fraud, crimes. In the other southwest border districts, we also have additional responsibilities. Specifically we're a gateway for hard narcotics and illegal immigrants that are moving to the United States. We cannot keep pace with the demands of our federal law enforcement agency partners with these kind of reductions going forward. So over the last several years, we've seen increases in the immigration cases we do. And we're not focusing on economic migrants. We're focusing on illegal aliens with serious criminal histories, document fraud, hard narcotics cases, we're focusing on violent crime, smuggling. With these being some of our largest volume of casework in the office, I'm concerned that if we move forward with full sequestration that is scheduled to take place, we are not going to be able to continue to build on these successes.

CAVANAUGH: Explain to us the idea, your feeling that you may have it to pick and choose which defenders your office decides to prosecute, if you are indeed furloughed and have these cuts to your budget. Won't the law dictate which cases move forward?

DUFFY: This is where we are. We can predict based on historical trends and where we believe we need to devote our resources. And we will most assuredly look to the types of criminal offenses that pose the greatest risk to safety and security to the citizens of the southern district of California. We would like to be able to just take for example in immigration prosecution realm, we would like to be able to produce all entering the United States who have serious convictions in their criminal history. Those range from rape, murder, assault, all the way to DUI and other relatively less serious offenses. We have to prioritize in every section in our office, including immigration, which of those are going to get priority. We do not have the resources or the dollars to prosecute every case any longer. And we have never taken every single case, but we certainly try to prioritize those that poise the greatest safety risk to our citizens.

CAVANAUGH: You've also mentioned the cuts to federal probation making it harder for officers to monitor people who are in the process of a pretrial, being held for pretrial. I wonder if you could explain that to us, and also whether or not this probation department is going to be using new methods, ankle monitors or something to, take up the slack since their personnel is being cut.

DUFFY: Thank you for that question. This is not just cuts to the Department of Justice. The entire system is facing cuts, and part of that is cuts to our judiciary. The federal district court handles the adjudication of all of the federal offenses brought in this district. Part of the judiciary is probation services that monitors individuals for and after proceedings when they have been released from custody. Part of what they monitor is are they complying with the conditions of their release, are they abiding by the law, are they in drug treatment as they should be? And the Court in Southern California faces the prospect of a 17% budget cut going forward. These are real things, the monitoring of individuals who have been released, and how we do that effectively. It will be diminished. We have been in this district and will continue to use methods as far as monitoring and what not. It is however a problem, as well as the defense ability, our federal defenders in San Diego, to adequately be able to represent their clients.

CAVANAUGH: As you have to cut back and survey which cases you're going to pursue, would you then choose to end the crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, not that there are many left. But would that be one of the areas where you would pull back on and use our limited resources for "more serious" crime.

DUFFY: Every single type of prosecution in the narcotic realm, medical marijuana, major frauds, national security, immigration is under review. And in every single one of those categories, we have to prioritize which poses the greatest threat to the community.

CAVANAUGH: So would you be pulling back on that crackdown then? Do you see that happening?

DUFFY: What I see is that every single case will be it receiving a case by case review and if there are factors in a particular case that my prosecutors and I believe do not warrant resources, then those cases may be cases that we're not able to address at this time.

CAVANAUGH: The U.S. attorney general Eric holder issued policy guidelines to stop low-level drug offenders from minimum sentencing. Do you agree with that policy?

DUFFY: I do agree with it. I've been in meetings with the attorney general and have been involved with my United States attorney colleagues in working through and reviewing and discussing criminal justice reform issues. The real driver behind this policy refinement is system review, whether what we're doing is effectively and economically sustainable. And it's not economically sustainable. I think upfront, the majority of folks agree with that. The federal prison population has increased by 800% in the past 30 years. Federal, state, local custody, how much has that cost us? $80 billion just in 2010 alone. The prison is 1/3 of the entire Department of Justice's budget. That is not sustainable. But more than that, statistics indicate that if may also need be the best way to protect public safety, these long terms of incarceration. And General Holder's revised policy directed at low-level offenders. Most federal detainees reoffend within three years. So we have to look at these recidivist rates and ask ourselves is what we're doing the best way to do it?

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, have you yourself seen low-level offenders caught up in these mandatory minimum sentences here in San Diego? Perhaps who would qualify under these guidelines who are new serving very long prison terms?

DUFFY: Well, what we've seen over the last 15 years or so, you're seen some pretty dramatic shifts in the policy of different administrations. Under general John ash croft, federal prosecutors would charge the most minimum offense. Under Eric Holder, in May of 2010, there was a step back from that, a little bit, that you do individualized assessment. Likely the most readily provable offense would be the most serious. But you take into consideration the conduct of the defendant, the circumstances, and try to make a match, a fit with the penalty and the charge. And now we're taking an even greater refinement from that policy, and unless a defendant is involved in violent conduct, threats of violence, serious bodily injury, use of a weapon, sales to minors, then you would decline prosecution unless they're tied to decline prosecution of a mandatory charge, unless they're linked to a large-scale gang or drug organization or cartel.

CAVANAUGH: We've heard stories about so many departments of the government, the military, 57,000 children not going to Head Start this year because of sequestration cuts. So if the other agencies are able to manage with these cuts, do you think your office would be? And subsequently, what would you like to see happen to stop the cuts from going into effect? I know the political realities in Washington DC.

DUFFY: Well, I think I and United States attorneys around the country, we certainly appreciate the economic challenges that our country faces. And we understand that steps need to be taken to reduce our federal deficit. We're willing to do our part. We're willing to reduce expenses and implement efficiencies in our budget. We are not willing to see our very core mission and part of the United States criminal justice system be compromised. If the Congress is serious about boarder enforcement and they want to see that move forward which is a particular focus right now, then they have to recognize that the approach of sequestration cannot foster border security. They need to bring out the scalpel and craft a reasonable and viable way for southwest border communities to carry out prosecutions that are essential to the safety of the citizens.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much for coming in and speaking with us today.

DUFFY: Thank you.