WASHINGTON – Young offenders in Maryland often face the legal system alone, or are inadequately represented by public defenders, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Bar Association.
The report found that, depending on the county they are charged in, 40 to 58 percent of children regularly waive their right to counsel. Those who receive counsel are often represented by low-paid, overworked attorneys who barely carry a comprehensive review of the defendants’ cases.
The report, one of 12 released so far by the ABA as it evaluates juvenile justice in the states, said Maryland’s poor performance is the reflection of years of inadequate funding for the state’s Office of the Public Defender — a charge that office agreed with.
“We have been saying this for a long time, the report just confirms it,” said Cindy Boersma, counsel for finance and policy for the Office of the Public Defender.
It was because of its limited resources that the public defender’s office volunteered to take part in the ABA’s nationwide review of juvenile defense systems. Boersma said the office underwent nearly a decade of neglect, with its budget falling short of its needs by as much as $3 million in some years.
But she said things are slowly improving.
Gov. Bob Ehrlich increased funding of the agency from $56.9 million in fiscal 2003 to $60.2 million this year. The governor has also embraced, and lawmakers funded, the caseloads initiative, which is intended to provide adequate staffing for the first time.
“We still have underfunding, but the governor has taken an important first step,” in spite of the current budget crisis, Boersma said. “The report shows how important it is that the caseloads initiative doesn’t lose any momentum in its second year.”
While the governor supports the initiative, there is no guarantee that funds will increase in the coming years, spokesman Henry Fawell said.
“We’re in very tight fiscal times,” he said.
The report looked at 15 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions, but the authors did not identify the counties visited. The 92-page report was a litany of problems with legal representation in the juvenile system.
In most jurisdictions, public defenders were not available during important stages of a case, said Ilona Picou, director of the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center, the organization commissioned by the ABA to conduct the report.
In several cases, attorneys spoke to their young clients only during final adjudication, and children in 11 of the 15 jurisdictions visited were not able to speak to a public defender before going to a detention center, Picou said.
Public defenders commonly show up in court unprepared and uninformed to serve their clients, evincing an absence of support staff, such as investigators and social workers, the report said.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Services declined to comment on the report specifically, since she had not seen it.
But Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said the report points up problems that need to be addressed.
“There is a lack of trust between parents and that office,” of the public defender, Miles said. He hailed the increased funding for the office, saying it should be used primarily for better training, not just for hiring more staff.
“First thing that needs to take place is better training, so that they (public defenders) can provide better understanding,” Miles said. “If I was a public defender, I would want to be more sensitive to the needs of children and families going through the juvenile justice system.”