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Originally published Friday, September 27, 2013 at 4:09 PM

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Guest: The sequestration squeeze on law enforcement

Real damage has already been done to law enforcement by congressional brinkmanship on the federal budget, writes guest columnist Jenny A. Durkan.

Special to The Times

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THE other Washington may have us headed for a government shutdown, and here in our Washington there will be few winners in this never-ending game of budget chicken. Unfortunately, even if a deal is reached to keep our government open, real damage already has been done.

Two years ago, when Congress failed to agree on federal spending levels, mandatory across-the-board cuts known as sequestration went into effect. For the U.S. Department of Justice — which includes agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshals, the Bureau of Prisons and 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices — that meant an automatic reduction of $1.6 billion from its fiscal year 2013 budget.

The Justice Department narrowly avoided unpaid furlough days by not filling vacancies and by cutting travel, training, equipment and operating costs. After making tough choices, we kept our prosecutors, law-enforcement agents, prison guards and other staff on the job to continue to protect communities, investigate crimes and bring criminals to justice.

But that was only a temporary fix. The sequestration impacts are real, and the cuts are set to increase over time at even higher levels. Further reductions in personnel and operations seem certain. Our people are dedicated and work hard every day to help our community, but it is not sustainable.

More directly, if there is no agreement on funding the federal government by midnight on Monday, then the government shuts down. That means that many of the people we depend on to keep our communities safe cannot come to work, and those that do come to work aren’t getting paid.

We have accomplished great things for the public during the last four years in western Washington: thwarting terrorist plots; protecting civil rights; prosecuting ever-increasing cybercrime threats; focusing on violent crimes, especially those involving guns and in hot spots that warrant extra attention; and taking out multinational drug organizations pushing dangerous drugs in our neighborhoods.

I am particularly proud of our efforts to strip wrongdoers of their profits and return money to taxpayers and victims. Between 2010 and 2012, our office recovered more than $100 million to compensate the victims of crime and support the federal treasury and law enforcement.

In 2013, we partnered with another office to recover $762 million in just one case, when our office’s entire budget was approximately $15.5 million. In other words, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in partnership with law-enforcement agencies, collects far more money on behalf of American taxpayers and victims than it spends.

Our ability to keep building on those successes is crippled when we can’t fill critical positions or maintain our current operations. That doesn’t make sense for public safety or for the bottom line.

It isn’t just federal law-enforcement agencies that feel the hit. State, local and tribal law-enforcement agencies rely on federal funding to support their work — for equipment, training and task-force support.

These grants support essential work by front-line cops and advocates working on human trafficking, protecting children and reducing gun violence. The overall grant-funding level was reduced this year and is now threatened by seemingly endless cuts.

Today, in government offices all across the country, instead of focusing solely on the work you pay us to do, we have to spend time preparing, yet again, to shut down.

Even if a last-minute deal keeps the doors open, ongoing arbitrary cuts will force us to charge fewer criminals and collect less money on your behalf.

We know the public expects us to use their money wisely. We know economic conditions require tough choices. But they also require smart choices.

If you could see what I see every day, you would not tolerate the seemingly endless cycle of gamesmanship and brinkmanship that puts our core mission at risk.

Jenny A. Durkan is U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.

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