WASHINGTON – The Maryland Office of the Public Defender announced Thursday that it will stop paying for private attorneys for indigent clients because it can’t afford them.
The decision made last week by State Public Defender Nancy Forster takes effect Oct. 1.
“Obviously there’s going to be a shared burden for everyone in the situation,” said Kim Schultz, spokeswoman for the public defender’s office. “Clearly we want to work with everyone to make sure our clients are served. The different counties and judges are going to have to come up with. . .other ways to serve our clients.”
The public defender hires private attorneys for $50 an hour when there is a conflict of interest in a case, such as co-defendants whose cases need to be argued separately.
State judges are still figuring out how to deal with the changes.
“(Maryland Chief Judge Robert) Bell has received information from the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and is in the process of considering how best to respond,” said Darrell Pressley, spokesman for the Maryland judiciary.
Of 200,000 total cases per year, 10,000 of them involve indigent defendants who are referred to private attorneys, costing the state $4.7 million annually, Schultz said.
The decision comes as the agency’s budget was recently reduced $1.3 million on top of an already underfunded annual budget.
“I think that public defender (Forster) should go in front of (the) legislature and ask for supplemental funds to the budget,” said Prince George’s Circuit Court Chief Administrative Judge William Missouri. “I don’t pretend to be the guru on the budget, but what I do know is consequences for that action will effectively bring the criminal cases in the court to a grinding halt.”
Forster chose to discontinue private attorney contracts because it was one of the few aspects in which she had discretion to do so, said Schultz.
Salaries, which are 90 percent of the budget, as well as things like rent, leases and computers, are among other aspects that could not be cut.
“The impact of this will be grave,” Missouri said. “At some point it’s going to generate a lawsuit. In the meantime, I have to be concerned with those who need attorneys.”
Missouri said he will consult the Maryland Bar Association to try to find lawyers willing to work for free, called pro bono service.
All Maryland attorneys are required to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work per year, but Missouri is unsure of whether or not this will fulfill the needs of the state.
“I don’t know if it will cover the 10,000 (clients),” Missouri said. “It’s difficult to ask lawyers to take more cases once they’ve taken one case. They have bills to pay and they have overhead, so in some point in time they need to get compensation.”
The impact will be felt in both large and small courts.
“This is going to create a lot of problems in all of our jurisdictions in our state, particularly in the smaller jurisdictions like Somerset,” said Lower Eastern Shore Circuit Court Chief Administrative Judge Daniel Long. “We don’t have a large budget and I don’t know where the money would come from if we were asked to pay for (private attorneys) in very serious cases.”
The courts are, by law, constrained to try cases within 180 days from the first appearance of a criminal defendant or the first appearance of counsel to the court.
“If we can’t find attorneys to try some of these cases I can’t begin to tell you what’s going to happen,” Long said.
In 2003, the public defender’s office created the Caseload Initiative to be phased in over the next few years. It provided for hiring additional public defenders according to caseload and relief from excessive caseloads. The initiative ended last year.
“This is an issue for public safety in that these offices are not being adequately funded and innocent people are going to go to jail and guilty people are going to be out on the streets,” said Maureen Dimino, indigent defense counsel with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “I understand that there has been a tightening of the belt but this is a fundamental constitutional right in our country. Cutting the right to adequate counsel isn’t the place to start cutting.”
The state prosecutor’s office had no comment on the action.
“I don’t know anything about it in that juncture and have no comment,” said State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh. “(Forster’s staff members) are going to have to discuss that with the Office of Budget and Management.”