Sequestration puts public safety at risk, federal officials warn in Kansas City

07/31/2013 12:30 AM

07/31/2013 12:30 AM

Barry Grissom and Tammy Dickinson usually do their best work in the courtroom.

But on Tuesday, the top federal law enforcement officers in Kansas and western Missouri joined forces to present their cases in the court of public opinion.

Their message: The federal sequestration that took effect earlier this year promises to have a devastating impact on their ability to prosecute violent criminals, child-sex predators and terrorists.

“Criminals don’t know sequestration,” said Dickinson, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri. “Criminals don’t know furloughs.”

But the budget cuts that have come and will continue to come during the 10-year sequestration plan will result in fewer prosecutors and fewer investigators for the FBI and other federal agencies that catch and prosecute those criminals, they say.

“There’s nothing left to cut but people,” Dickinson said. “If we cut people, we have to cut cases.”

Grissom, the U.S. attorney for Kansas, said he travels the state meeting with local law enforcement officials in far-flung western Kansas. Those relationships allow his office to take cases to federal court that result in lengthier prison sentences than those that can be gotten under state law.

Many of those cases involve prosecuting felons who illegally possess firearms or those who take economic advantage of elderly residents.

“I don’t want to tell them: ‘I can’t help you,’” Grissom said. “Which area am I supposed to do less of?”

Both of their offices already have had several years of hiring freezes and no cost-of-living raises for employees. This year, each office must deal with the additional cuts of about 10 percent. Next year, under sequestration, they must absorb additional, deeper cuts.

“We’re not going away,” Grissom said. “But it is certainly going to make our jobs much more difficult.”

A big part of their jobs, of which most people are unaware, is collecting fines, restitution and civil penalties from defendants. As a result, both offices actually bring in more revenue than they cost to operate, the prosecutors noted.

“If we cut people, we’ll be cutting revenue,” Dickinson said.

They said that beyond the hard figures are the intangible costs of the budget cuts. For instance, being able to successfully prosecute Medicare and Medicaid fraud cases helps keep health care costs down, Grissom said.

Dickinson said the fact that she and Grissom are being allowed to speak out about the sequestration issue is “unprecedented.” U.S. attorneys normally are precluded from talking about policy and political issues.

“But the situation is about to become so dire that we feel compelled to bring it to the public’s attention,” Dickinson said.

They said their goal is to educate the public, not influence Congress.

“We’re not politicians. We want to make sure the public understands the breadth of the problem,” Grissom said. “We’re not here to tell Congress what they should do or not do.”

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