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Justice Department Workers Feel The Pinch

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Federal workers are feeling the pinch from the country's budget problems. Two weeks ago, the Justice Department imposed a hiring freeze and put a stop to nonessential travel.

Now, law enforcement officers tell NPR's Carrie Johnson they're worried about even more belt-tightening.

CARRIE JOHNSON: The White House will release its 2012 budget next week. President Obama's budget director is already signaling there'll be years of major cuts for programs that don't involve national security.

Attorney General Eric Holder froze hiring in all Justice Department units last month. His order put an end to recruiting for two new federal prisons in Mendota, California, and Berlin, New Hampshire. It means that desperately needed new prison space that would house 4,600inmates is one of the priorities that will fall by the wayside.

Bryan Lowry is the president of the union that represents prison guards.

Mr. BRYAN LOWRY (President, AFGE Council of Prison Locals): We cannot continue to lock people up in federal prisons at such a high rate, only prosecuting people and then not fund the bed space and the additional staff needed to actually safely operate our prison system.

JOHNSON: Lowry says many federal prisons are squeezing three prisoners into a cell that's meant for two. The overcrowding, he says, increases tensions among inmates. The result: Last year, 23 were murdered. He adds that it stresses guards too.

Mr. LOWRY: It actually hurts me inside for some of our staff who every day drive to these violent, hardened prisons, and before they go into work, they cry.

JOHNSON: Then there's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. One agent there says they're parking broken cars and letting men sit idle rather than pay for expensive repair work.

But it could have been worse. The ATF appears to be holding some ground. A program that polices the southwest border will survive the budget scalpel after scrutiny in the press.

Another Justice Department unit, the U.S. Marshals Service, knew this budget trouble was coming months ago. Spokesman Jeff Carter says the marshals decided to get rid of one of their own programs to save money. It's called Fugitive Safe Surrender and it helped nonviolent criminals turn themselves in at neighborhood churches.

Mr. JEFF CARTER (Spokesman, U.S. Marshals Service): And over the course of the program, we were able to take about 27,000 nonviolent offenders, mostly with local warrants, off the streets. Unfortunately, we didn't have appropriations for that. And while it was a laudable program, we just couldn't continue to take the money out of our general funds.

Mr. KONRAD MOTYKA (President, FBI Agents Association): My name is Konrad Motyka and I'm the president of the FBI Agents Association.

JOHNSON: Motyka says the White House and Congress want to preserve national security funds, the FBI's top priority, which means many parts of the FBI are safe.

Mr. MOTYKA: The FBI has such a wide variety of responsibilities ranging from mortgage fraud to uncovering espionage networks to looking at violent crime. And those things are not going to go away and they're going to remain of concern to the local communities.

JOHNSON: So the number of FBI agents should remain stable, he says, but it could take a lot longer to fill open jobs among support staff and intelligence analysts there.

Mr. MOTYKA: We just don't want the ax to fall solely on the shoulders of federal employees because it does affect recruitment, retention and morale within organizations that are very, very important.

JOHNSON: Morale that's already mixed. Even before the president's 2012 budget arrives, federal agents say they're noticing the effect of a White House freeze on their paychecks. Their salaries, they say, remain the same. But like many Americans, their health insurance cost just keep going up.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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