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Prosecutors are forced to ignore misdemeanor violations to pursue more serious crimes. Judges are delaying trials to cope with layoffs and strained staffing levels. And in some cases, those charged with violent crimes, even murder, are set free because caseloads are too heavy to ensure they receive a speedy trial.

Deep budget cuts to courts, public defenders, district attorney's and attorney general offices are testing the criminal justice system across the country. In the most extreme cases, public defenders are questioning whether their clients are getting a fair shake.

Exact figures on the extent of the cuts are hard to come by, but an American Bar Association report in August found that most states cut court funding 10 percent to 15 percent within the past three years. At least 26 states delayed filling open judgeships, while courts in 14 states were forced to lay off staff, said the report.

The National District Attorneys Association estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice funding and scores of positions have been cut amid the economic downturn, hampering the ability of authorities to investigate and prosecute cases.


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