originally published October 23, 2008
Nancy S. Forster, the State Public Defender, dropped a little bombshell at the Baltimore Criminal Coordinating Council meeting earlier this month.
Due to budget cutbacks, she grimly said, she no longer has the money to pay for lawyers to represent all the defendants who are eligible for free services. While she and Governor Martin O’Malley were discussing a solution, for now she would reject some defendants even if they couldn’t afford an attorney. Defense attorney Margaret Mead told me that this has the potential “to bring the entire system to a screeching halt.”
It reminded me of Forster’s predecessor, Stephen E. Harris, who once used the same tactic. If you don’t give me more money, I won’t represent defendants. He and Elizabeth L. Julian, District Public Defender for
Except that at the very time Harris was turning away those clients, he was representing defendants who were not entitled to free lawyers. These were defendants who had just been arrested, hadn’t posted bail, and were going to their first bail review within a day or two of arrest. Instead of making this clear to lawmakers and asking whether he should redeploy his resources, Harris played his trump card.
Forster followed suit, this time with cases in which more than one person is charged with committing a crime. The Public Defender’s Office can’t represent all the co-defendants because they may have conflicting interests (one co-defendant may want to blame the other, for example.) In the past the Public Defender has represented one co-defendant and paid for private lawyers to represent the others, but that is what Forster says she will no longer do.
Yet her office is still representing people at bail reviews. In
City bail representation evolved out of Mayor Martin O’Malley’s
After Forster made her announcement, I asked her about the current state of bail representation. She said that in addition to
I then got an e-mail from her spokesman, Kimberlee Schultz that said, “…we are in the midst of a personnel crisis (due to severe underfunding). Therefore, it is difficult to do the work necessary to maintain our core mission, so we just do not have the resources right now to respond to all your questions. You have the option of filing a Freedom of Information Act request.”
Funny, I tried that option once before when writing a report about the
A competent financial/personnel officer could or should have had the figures close at hand. Forster had not been the State Public Defender when bail review representation began and I was willing to believe that she hadn’t thought about the issue when trying to resolve her budget concerns. But I know a stonewall when I see it, having smacked into one before.
Before the State, city and counties scramble to find more money in tough budget times so that the Public Defender can meet her “core mission,” they ought to first stop funding activities outside of that mission. One report put the Public Defender’s funding for
I don’t oppose free representation at bail review as a theory (though I will have more to say on its effective and efficient use of taxpayer funds later.) But unless and until it is a legal right, Forster has a duty to be forthright about her agency’s funding and use of resources, especially in times of painful deficits. Instead, she is using defendants who have an absolute right to her services as pawns in a power play for more funding. This time, the governor needs to take a hard look at her claims before robbing Peter to pay
Another Source of Savings
Another Source of Savings
Kristen M. Mahoney, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention which administers the funding, recognizes that the Public Defender is “missionless” when it comes to the War Room. To her credit she has asked Julian whether she wants to scrap this year’s funding and divert it to paying private attorneys for co-defendants (though I don’t know why it should be up to the Public Defender.) Mahoney is waiting on Julian’s answer.
While $70,000 pales in comparison to that spent on bail review, quite a few poor co-defendants could get lawyers out of it. The State Public Defender ought to be looking at all of her non-essential funding before turning away the clients who represent their “core mission.”