US attorneys say criminals may be roaming free as govt shutdown slows investigations

US attorneys say criminals may be roaming free as govt shutdown slows investigations
A professional union of 6,000 US prosecutors says the government shutdown has heavily incapacitated criminal proceedings with lack of funds for DNA tests and jury services, allowing criminal suspects to escape punishment.

With the record-smashing government shutdown now in its 28th day, more and more federal agencies and departments have been feeling its crippling impact on their work. Hard times have come for the employees of the Department of Justice, including numerous civil and federal prosecutors in US courts.

In a statement on Friday, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), a union-like structure representing 6,000 attorneys across 94 US federal districts, said that due to the shortage of funds many of the essential tasks, such as retrieving DNA in criminal cases, are put on hold instead of being fast-tracked.

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The lack of travel funds prevents federal agents from questioning victims and witnesses, and has stranded subpoenas that are still to be served. Most alarmingly, the shutdown might be enabling dangerous criminals to walk free, as the justice system slows to a crawl.

"Crime investigations and grand jury panels are slowing down, while perpetrators remain at large," NAAUSA said.

"The government's capacity to secure justice is becoming compromised by the government shutdown," they stressed.

Despite the difficulties they currently face, attorneys "are continuing to investigate cases, seek indictments, appear in court, prepare for trial, try cases and fulfill other litigation responsibilities," while not being paid for their work, the association said, "strongly urging" President Donald Trump and the Democratic leadership in Congress to reopen the government.

The plea from assistant attorneys comes several days after the Administrative Office of the United States Courts warned that it is running out of funds it saved via court fees and is struggling to sustain its operations. In a memo from January 15, the agency said that it has managed to scrape together enough money to pay its employees through January 25 and hopes to be able continue to do so "as far as February 1."

"It is only through the extraordinary efforts of court units and Federal Public Defender Organizations, along with AO offices supporting national programs, that we are able to extend paid operations through January 25," it said.

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The New York Times reported, citing Chicago judge Ruben Castillo, that a lack of funding might force jurors to wrap up deliberations as early as possible since their services will remain unpaid until the shutdown is over. "Those circumstances can lead to rushed judgments on the part of jurors that just want to get this done and over with." 

Some courts have already been forced to put on hold civil cases with the US government as a party, the agency said, noting that "criminal cases are expected to proceed uninterrupted."

The shutdown, which is not showing any sign of ending, has affected 800,000 government workers, with half of them still working without pay, while the other half is furloughed.

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